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Decorah-Posten: The Story of an Immigrant Newspaper
    by Odd S. Lovoll (Volume 27: Page 77)

The Norwegian-American press established itself firmly as a major institution as early as the pioneer era of immigration from Norway - from the late 1840s to the end of the Civil War. Thereafter more newspapers sprang up in the shifting immigrant centers, totaling as many as four hundred from first to last. A few of these became leading organs, growing with the Norwegian-American community and providing leadership in changed conditions. In the Middle West, Skandinaven (1866-1941) in Chicago, Decorah-Posten (1874-1972) in Iowa, and Minneapolis Tidende (1887- 1935) in Minnesota became the major papers - all three having wide circulation. None of the other publications probably ever fully attained the position of Decorah-Posten.

For nearly a hundred years, this notable journal served the Norwegians in America. It printed news from the old homeland, reported social and political developments in the New World, and promoted immigrant unity by bringing Norwegians into touch with their countrymen in other areas of settlement. It entertained its readers with literary writings, advised them on a variety of subjects, [78] and created pride in their ethnic background. Even after it had been carefully read, the paper was not discarded, but, as Barbara Levorsen of North Dakota relates, it served as lining for drawers and shelves and covered barren walls. An American-born generation of Norwegians grew up with Decorah-Posten. It became a family member; its name and history were intimately associated with immigrant life. {1}

Decorah-Posten, like most early journals, had modest beginnings. Its origin may be traced to the appearance at La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1866, of the first Norwegian-American literary magazine, Ved Arnen: Et Tidsskrift for Skjønliteratur (By the Fireside: A Periodical for Belles-Lettres). This monthly publication was founded by B. Anundsen, who in 1864, at the age of twenty, had come to Wisconsin from Skien, Norway. Having completed an apprenticeship in the printing trade before migrating, he found a job as a typesetter on the staff of Fædrelandet (The Fatherland), a newspaper established early that same year in La Crosse. Anundsen has related that, during the summer of 1866, it occurred to him “to publish a periodical for the Norwegians in America.” He managed to issue the first number of Ved Arnen, on September 1, 1866, with sixty subscribers. His intention was to present “short stories, poems, geographical and natural history accounts, new discoveries, famous men’s life stories, anecdotes, and the like.” Ved Arnen did not, however, provide a living for Anundsen and his wife, the former Mathilda Hoffstrøm, whom he had married in 1865.

The next few years were a bleak period for Anundsen, spent trying to make ends meet. On December 13, 1867, he set out to transport all his worldly possessions - including a small printing press - from La Crosse to [79] Decorah, Iowa. Traveling by way of Spring Grove, Minnesota - using two horse-drawn wagons - he arrived at his new base in two days. In spite of the change of location, Ved Arnen did not thrive, and the publisher was forced to discontinue it in 1870. {2}

Originally, he had been invited by the Norwegian Synod (the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) to print its official organ, Kirkelig Maanedstidende (Church Monthly), which the Synod leaders desired to have published under the supervision of the Luther College faculty. They therefore moved it from Madison, Wisconsin, to Decorah. Anundsen printed this official church paper until 1877, when the Synod bought its own press. {3} Anundsen sought additional business for his little printing shop. In 1869 he attempted to establish - first as a supplement to Ved Arnen and later independently - a publication he called Fra Fjærnt og Nær (From Far and Near). It never had more than seventy-five subscribers, however, and he abandoned the venture after one year. {4}

Then, on September 18, 1874, as a direct result of these earlier efforts, Anundsen presented Decorah-Posten to the citizens of Decorah. The paper was actually dated September 5, but because of difficulties in getting it ready, it was not distributed until the 18th. The first issue consisted of four small five-column pages and had the unassuming goal of becoming a local “news and advertisement paper for Decorah and vicinity.” The publisher distributed a thousand copies free every week until, after about three months, Posten had gained that many subscribers. {5} [80]

In a message printed both in Norwegian and English, Anundsen announced his purpose at the outset: “I hope in a very short time to have a subscription list larger than any other paper in the county. The paper will contain NO POLITICS, but local and other news from the new and the old world besides novels and other interesting reading matter.” This ambitious statement concerning future circulation was of course intended to attract a sizable number of potential advertisers, who through the paper would reach a wide circulation among new settlers. Decorah, in Winneshiek County, was a center of Norwegians in northeastern Iowa. In 1870, Winneshiek County had 8,302 Norwegians in a total population of 23,570. Consequently, there was some justification for hoping that Decorah-Posten would profitably serve these people. {6}

The avoidance of controversial issues, pledged in the first number, was a prudent business policy. The publisher knew the dire consequences of entering such “dangerous areas” as political and religious controversy, which had destroyed so many earlier papers. Decorah-Posten, in the words of Johannes B. Wist, therefore “took a position of merely reporting objectively on any public issue and continued this policy long after it had become a real force in our Norwegian press over here.” Even so, the paper in time revealed Republican leanings. Especially from the mid-1890s to World War I, Posten favored progressive politics - although it never participated in any political campaign. Under the editorship of Wist, it did, however, join other immigrant journals in calling for control of large business interests. It opposed the actions of the trusts and advocated liberal legislation. In September, 1912, the paper openly declared its support of Progressivism, “which has gained so much ground in [81] this country.” Its clearly progressive Republican sympathies reflected the sentiments of the vast majority of subscribers in the Middle West; therefore an advocacy of these views did not involve a financial risk. Such openness, however, was rare. Einar Lund, on the editorial staff from 1927 and a Republican in outlook, expressed as his personal opinion that no immigrant paper - especially in later years - should espouse a partisan political cause. He wrote that “Posten has always sought to inform rather than direct its readers.” This journalistic policy was an important factor in attracting a large readership. {7}

A similar neutrality was assumed by the paper in religious matters. It was almost inevitable, however, that the Norwegian Synod should be given special consideration. Anundsen and many of the other editors had close ties with Luther College and belonged to the Synod, whose headquarters were in Decorah. It might have been an indication of bias that in 1903, when the Norwegian Synod celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, Decorah-Posten became a daily from June 19 to June 24. In order to report fully on the festivities - which attracted some 9,000 people to Decorah - even a Sunday edition was printed, filled with portraits, sermons, and special articles. {8}

Bernt Askevold, the first editor of Decorah-Posten other than Anundsen, was a recent immigrant from Sunnfjord, who later became a Synod minister. Anundsen never completely abandoned his position as editor, but he concerned himself mainly with the commercial side of his operation. The paper was not a paying enterprise. Imprudently, Anundsen irritated readers by devoting excessive space to advertising. In October, [82]

1874, he felt compelled to defend his position: “We have lately heard expressed that Decorah-Posten has too little reading material. We admit that this complaint has some justification, but reasonable people will most certainly not require us to print a weekly paper at the low annual price of half a dollar and fill it with reading material.” {9}

The number of subscribers continued to grow. By 1875 the paper had outdistanced its two English-language competitors, the Decorah Republican and the Decorah Journal, to become the official newspaper in Winneshiek County. Still, Posten barely paid its way, and in 1877 it actually operated with a deficit of $465. Such poor returns were partly due to people’s slackness in meeting their financial obligations. Numerous appeals for payment for subscriptions appeared in print. As a last resort, Anundsen published the names of “dead beats” and threatened to take legal action to collect what they owed him. “So little money comes in now days that it makes us quite confused,” he wrote in 1884. {10}

That very year, however, there came a turn for the better. The improved prospects had several causes. Considerable credit can be given to Anundsen for his sound judgment and business sense. He kept abreast of the times in executive leadership, printing, and distribution, and he expanded the physical plant to meet growing needs. An example of his foresight is the fact that in 1889 Decorah-Posten became the first Scandinavian newspaper in America to be printed on a rotary press. A contributing factor to the eventual success and profitability of his venture was the practice of awarding novels, collections of short stories and poems, and songbooks as prizes for new subscriptions. These literary works usually had been serialized in Decorah-Posten. {11} [83]

H. A. Foss, in a final attempt to find a publisher for his novel, Husmandsgutten: En fortælling fra Sigdal (The Cotter’s Boy: A Tale from Sigdal), mailed the manuscript to Decorah-Posten. Shortly thereafter - on December 3, 1884 - the first installment of this much-celebrated tale appeared in the paper. At once, it had a profound effect on circulation. Norwegians were so eager to read the novel that it seemed to the publisher “as if people were competing to mail in new subscriptions.” It is said that the serialized story produced 6,000 new subscribers in a single winter. Foss possessed limited literary talent. The popularity of his writing rested on its success in employing the formula of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s idealized peasant tales - the universal dream of the immigrant. The hero, a humble cotter boy, wins success in America and then returns to his native valley, where he overcomes the social barriers that had separated him from the girl he loves. When published in book form in 1885, the story won additional acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. {12}

By 1885, Decorah-Posten’s circulation had passed 20,000. For the remainder of its long existence, the paper gave its publisher a good profit. Its promotional efforts earned it favor with Norwegian Americans throughout the Middle West and beyond. A colorful print of the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian became one of its most popular subscription prizes. This attractive gift could be framed for hanging, and after November, 1885 - when it was made available “as an appropriate Christmas present” - 30,000 copies were either sold or given away to be accorded a place of honor in the thousands of immigrant homes.

In the 1890s, Decorah-Posten also arranged with a [84] sewing machine manufacturer to sell his product under the name Husvennen (The Friend of the House). Through what likely was one of the most original offers ever made by a newspaper, a person could receive Decorah-Posten for one year and a sewing machine at a bargain price of $22.25. Women referred to Husvennen, which the paper sold for many years, as “the Decorah-Posten sewing machine.” They ordered needles and parts under that designation. Other inducements to subscribers included watches, scissors, and even a rubber stamp bearing the individual’s name. {13}

In the fall of 1882, Anundsen revived Ved Arnen as a literary supplement to his newspaper. Its publication was somewhat irregular until 1887, when, with volume 14, it became a weekly addition. Decorah-Posten, through Ved Arnen, had a special degree of literary influence. It presented a whole library of verse and imaginative prose, mainly translated novels and short stories. It also offered literature from the homeland and Norwegian-American fiction. The quality varied greatly. The translated selections ranged from works by Charles Dickens and Anatole France to Robert Louis Stevenson and Baroness Orczy’s fictional account, The Scarlet Pimpernel, from the period of the French Revolution. Also presented were the crime stories of William Wilkie Collins, numerous oversentimental novels and short narratives, and the Western romances of Zane Grey. Undoubtedly, the publication of these writings filled a real need among the immigrants for entertaining reading material. A delay in printing Ved Arnen in late 1889 - while a new press was being installed - produced a storm of outcries from disappointed readers eager for the next installment. Some even cancelled their subscriptions in protest. Others delayed payment of dues. {14} [85]

In 1888, Decorah-Posten began in earnest to provide an introduction to Norwegian literature, when the publisher bought a story by the Telemark writer, John Lie, entitled the Grindal-saga (The Saga of Grindal). At this time, it was only the first of many tales, legends, and poems by this particular author, which were to win special favor with the immigrants. Regional writers from the romantic revival of the 1890s - men like Bernt Lie, Jacob Breda Bull, and Hans Aanrud - were also included. So too were Johan Falkberget, who wrote of the mountain people and miners in the Røros district, and Trygve Gulbranssen, author of popular hero-filled novels. All were now introduced to Ved Arnen’s readers. Anundsen consistently paid for the right to publish the selected material. Jonas Lie was represented by the historically interesting Dyre Rein, and Bjørnson’s idealized tales of peasant life became almost regular features. The nostalgic and the sentimental had an apparent attraction for immigrant readers. {15}

The paper similarly opened its columns to Norwegian-American writers. In 1935 Professor Theodore Jorgenson of St. Olaf College assessed its contributions: “In Ved Arnen we have another cultural factor as it has printed a long series of valuable stories. Aside from this fact, Posten has been one of the few papers here in Vesterheimen (the home in the West) that has taken pains to present what our own people have written. I suppose the day will come when one has to consult its files in order to write the history of Norwegian-American literature.” It provided an outlet where literary talent could be published. In order to encourage creative writing, Decorah-Posten as early as 1880 invited its readers to compete for a prize of $25 by submitting a Christmas [86] story. Unfortunately, none of the ten entries was deemed worthy of the prize. In 1924, when the paper arranged another competition to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, so many stories came in that “they formed a little mountain.” The editor’s surprised remark was, “We had no idea that there were so many writing men and women in Norwegian America.” Three awards were given, all of them to women, whose contributions were later printed in Ved Arnen. {16}

After his great success in 1884-1885 with The Cotter’s Boy, Foss had published Kristine: En fortælling fra Valdres (Kristine: A Tale from Valdres), written in the same romantic style. In the 1920s, in the novel Valborg: En fortælling fra Nord Dakota (Valborg: A Tale from North Dakota), he described immigrant life. Such Danish-American writers as Kristian Østergaard were also included in Ved Arnen, and in 1900 a fellow Dane,

J. Christian Bay, in a novel called Hvom tvende verdener mødes (Where Two Worlds Meet), told with excessive irony of the dilemma of immigrant adjustment. The literary supplement also printed stories and longer works by Antonette Tovsen, recipient of the first prize in the 1924 competition, and by Ruth L. Fjeldsaa. None of their literary works appeared in book form.

In 1928 Ved Arnen serialized Waldemar Ager’s Camlelandets sønner (The Sons of the Old Country). The same volume contains two books by O. E. Rølvaag: I de dage (In Those Days) and Riget grundlægges (The Kingdom Is Founded), which had appeared the year before as a single volume in English, entitled Giants in the Earth. Inga Lee and Karen Benedichte Andersen wrote for the paper, as did Iver Bernhart and Palma Pederson. In the 1930s Ved Amen published I onkel Sams land (In Uncle Sam’s Land) by Lars Hellesnes and [87] Det for jættede land (The Promised Land) by John A. Erikson, in addition to narratives by less known authors. Erikson’s later novels found an audience exclusively in Ved Arnen; the last, Et forlis (A Shipwreck), appeared in November, 1945. In time, the immigrant press represented the sole medium for publishing in Norwegian. {17}

Emphasis on creative writing reflected the cultural interests and literary talents of many of Decorah-Posten’s editors. Askevold, editor for a time after the launching of the paper, had served as a public-school teacher in Bergen, Norway, and has been credited with publishing, in book form in 1876, the first novel written in Norwegian in the United States; it was Hun Ragnhild, eller billeder fra Søndfjord (Ragnhild, or Pictures from Søndfjord). Lyder Siewers, born in Fredrikstad, was the second to fill the editorial chair. The Norwegian-American press gave impetus to and sustained a kind of intelligentsia. A number of the men making a living on the various newspapers certainly could have made their mark outside the confines of immigrant journalism. Their responsibilities as editors, however, did give them the necessary prestige, as well as the opportunity, to play an effective role in the immigrant community, as leaders and promoters of culture. Indeed, some of the major Norwegian-American newspapermen could hardly be conceived of as making their contributions except in the service of the press, both because of interest and because of a restricting language barrier.

Although some of the men who found positions in Decorah-Posten’s editorial department had had prior journalistic experience, few had been specifically trained for their careers. They were more likely to be recruited from the teaching profession and to have had in Norway their education at a folk high school, or to have belonged to the class of public-school teachers [88] referred to as seminarist. Because of their exposure at home to Grundtvigian doctrines and political liberalism, immigrant editors - including those on Decorah-Posten - commonly harbored antiofficial sentiments, were nationalistic in outlook, and displayed a broadly liberal, frequently romantic, cultural view. They revealed a deep and idealistic interest in the immigrant experience and were democratic in their associations and philosophy. {18}

Siewers had begun his career in the United States in 1863 as a teacher at Luther College, after having taught in secondary schools in Christiania. His relationship with Anundsen began in 1870, when he, together with colleagues at Luther, began publishing the periodical For Hjemmet (For the Home), which Anundsen printed. In 1877 Siewers left the teaching profession entirely to work for Decorah-Posten; there he had employment for thirty years, part of the time as managing editor. One of the associate editors, Thrond Bothne, had also entered journalism by way of a position at Luther College. In Norway he had served as a public-school teacher, but he had also gained editorial experience and possessed knowledge far beyond his formal education. Like Siewers, he was a man of considerable talent; Kristian Prestgard considered Bothne to be “the sharpest mind that has ever served our schools and our press.” He had behind him an impressive career in immigrant journalism when he joined Decorah-Posten’s editorial staff in the late 1890s. Both Siewers and Bothne were friendly, outgoing men, somewhat romantic in ideals and philosophies. They adhered to a subjective and personal style of reporting and never seemed to lose their didactic schoolmaster-like dispositions. {19} [89]

The first co-editor of Decorah-Posten was Erik S. Gjellum, who was hired in 1885 to assume a growing responsibility caused by the expansion in the paper’s size and circulation. He gradually took over as editor-in-chief, a position he filled until 1900; he was the only American-born person ever to occupy that post. Gjellum, a Luther graduate and a lawyer by training, possessed no elegant literary style, but he strove laboriously for clarity in speech and writing. He has been described as one of Decorah-Posten’s hardest working editors and is credited with furthering considerably the journal’s advance to a favorable position. His successor as head of the editorial department, Johannes B. Wist, and Kristian Prestgard - who had come to Decorah-Posten to assist Gjellum in 1898 - were the two most influential and renowned men to serve the paper. They formed an efficient and productive team, although they were dissimilar in temperament and outlook. {20}

Born at Inderøy in 1864, Wist had been engaged in Norway as a private tutor and newspaper correspondent; in the latter capacity he had witnessed many of the stormy political rallies of the 1880s, in which the liberal and national issues of the period had been raised. A progressive political and social philosophy, a patriotic cultural view, and an idealistic regard for his own profession remained with Wist throughout his life. After arriving in America in 1884, he was occupied in varied journalistic activities; he became a force in Decorah-Posten after the turn of the century. He found outlet for a creative urge on this paper. In his novel Jonasville, among others he wrote, he depicted the immigrant experience in satirical terms. Loosely disguised as “Arnljot,” Wist wrote a regular column called Mellemmad (Snacks), enlivening it by dealing humorously with a variety of topics. In 1905, together with Prestgard, he [90] launched Symra, a first-rate literary magazine. Aristocratic in name and manners, he was a versatile and capable newspaperman, who gave Decorah-Posten its definitive format. {21}

As co-editor, Prestgard was given responsibility for Ved Arnen. Its contents reflected his taste and his familiarity with the literature of his homeland. In Decorah-Posten’s so-called “cut-out section” - which formed a book when all installments had been printed - he presented in 1902 and 1903 a wide selection of Norwegian verse. In 1906, these were published as Norske kvad (Norwegian Poems). Prestgard had been born in 1866 in Heidal, in the Gudbrandsdal valley. A national romanticist, he had received his education in folk high schools in Norway and Denmark; he had had experience both as a teacher and as a journalist before coming to the United States in 1893. Actually, Prestgard had been sent to America only as a special correspondent to cover the Chicago World’s Fair, but he did not see his native soil again until 1927. Earlier he had embraced patriotic causes closely united with the self-assertion of the rural classes in Norway, and he had a strong attachment to his home valley. In 1924, in a series of contributions entitled Utvandrerens tragedie (The Tragedy of an Immigrant), he introspectively discussed the rootlessness and the loss caused by separation from family and ancestral ground. A trip back to his home valley in 1927 furnished him material for a moving account which he called En sommer i Norge, published in English as Fjords and Faces {22}

In this book, Prestgard pays loving tribute to his place of birth; in the following excerpts he discloses a [91] romantic attachment to the local vernacular: “Well, here I really was, back in my home bygd, listening with all my senses open to the old home language. I thought I had never heard anything more beautiful. In almost every sentence there were striking words and turns of speech that I had forgotten. It was as if the words had faces and became living beings, and I had a desire to go over to them and greet them as old friends. . . . It was like taking down from a shelf one piece of silver heirloom after the other and gazing in recognition at it.” Prestgard had a strong sense for literary style. On the death of Wist in 1923, he moved into the top editorial position. {23}

A number of associate editors and other co-workers served Decorah-Posten in the years after 1900. Ragnar Monrad, a Norwegian academician and former Luther College teacher, Christian Brandt, a distinguished politician and newspaperman, and K. A. Kleppe, a dissatisfied victim of a financial crisis that had robbed him of a large fortune, were representative of the variety of persons who found employment on the paper. In the 1920s, George Strandvold, a Danish American whose specialty was editing foreign news, and “the prairie writer,” Simon Johnson, joined the editorial staff. Such notable writers as Iver A. Ham, Hjalmar Rued Holand, Olav Redal, and O. E. Rølvaag contributed material, mainly dealing with Norwegian-American life. {24}

In 1927, Einar Lund was employed as an associate editor, and, when Prestgard died in 1946, he assumed full editorial responsibility. Like his predecessors, he felt at home in a rural setting, had strong national and democratic sympathies, and expressed his concern for the immigrant experience through creative writing. His novel Solveig Murphy, published in Ved Arnen in the 1930s, depicts the dilemma of adjustment facing [92] American-born Norwegians. In some respects their problem was greater than that of the original immigrants, because “the old had the memories and traditions from their old fatherland and family - the young remain rootless and groping.” His own confrontation with American society came rather late in life, for he was thirty-nine years old in 1919 when he arrived in the United States. In Norway, he had owned and edited newspapers of a social-democratic political color. Lund’s major editorial skills centered on the treatment of news from Norway and items concerned with American politics. Interest in the latter, combined with strong agrarian attachments and a disenchantment with the Norwegian labor movement, caused him to regard political developments in America from a Republican point of view, the attitude, of course, of many influential Norwegian Americans. {25}

Erling Innvik, from Sunndalsøra, Norway, who had had experience in journalism in the homeland, came to Decorah in 1959 and succeeded Lund in 1962. Innvik gradually introduced changes that modernized the language and appearance of Posten, although in no radical direction. During the last two years of its existence, the paper was edited by Rasmus Dahle-Melsaether, a Lutheran minister who had been a long-time associate in the editorial department.

Decorah-Posten was a well-edited paper. Its size and familiar format developed gradually. After a financial loss in 1877, Anundsen decided that in order to survive he must expand and make his journal more attractive. A stricter editorial policy followed and, as a result, national and world news were more fully reported. It is important to bear in mind that, before the rapid spread of metropolitan newspapers after 1900, many of Posten’s readers had no other source of news. Material was [93] introduced in regular sections, such as “The Children’s Column,” “The Farm,” and “House and Garden.” Special departments of this kind became one of the most typical aspects of Decorah-Posten. They continued to increase in number, so that by 1930 there were about eighteen of them, including “News from Norway,” “From Town and Bygd in Norway,” “From Country and Town in Denmark,” the last two presenting news notes from small and large communities. Other featured columns were “News from America,” “Church and School,” “Bygdelag News,” “Health and Sickness,” and “Questions and Answers.”

The editors conducted personal columns, such as Lund’s humorous “Rusk og Rask (Dust and Dirt), Philosophical Observations by Ulv Graabeinson.” The paper’s major appeal lay in its predictability; a reader could always rely on finding what he looked for. There were no glaring headlines to disturb him or unexpected editorial opinions to dismay him. A perusal of the paper was rewarding because of its familiarity. The older generation of immigrants, those who belonged to an established tradition of the Middle West, were closely attuned to its varied contents and to its established editorial principles. {26}

By 1894 the publisher was able to issue Decorah-Posten twice a week, and it continued as a semiweekly until 1942, when it again became a weekly. The expansion in the 1890s included the use of more illustrations; in 1901, Wist, as editor, gave the paper’s front page its final form, a format that involved greater stress on news items and the shifting of advertising and incidental material into the inside pages. The growth of Posten resulted from the crests of the mass immigration of Norwegians in the 1880s and in the decade and a half [94] before World War I. Around 1900, the newspaper found its way into almost 37,000 homes; only Skandinaven of the three major Midwestern papers surpassed it in number of subscribers. The Decorah publication’s circulation peaked in the mid-1920s - at a time when other journals reported a disturbing decline - with paying readers totaling about 45,000. Its subscribers spread from coast to coast, but the majority of them were in the Upper Midwest. By comparison, Skandinaven’s impressive semiweekly circulation of 50,000 in 1910 had been cut in half by 1925. Posten had as many as 980 foreign subscribers, mainly in Norway, and very likely several thousand Danish-American readers. {27}

When Norwegian Americans moved to new areas of settlement, they took the paper with them; subscription agents introduced it to others. “Wherever Norwegians go, Decorah-Posten follows,” became a popular slogan. Readers maintained a lively relationship with the paper through correspondence, writing of personal experiences, appealing for new settlers, requesting information from the editor, and expressing opinions on a variety of issues. These letters constitute significant social documents, despite their simplicity in language and content. Typically, a writer would begin, as did a correspondent in Polk County, Minnesota, in 1880: “As I assume that many of your paper’s readers wish to receive reliable information about the economic conditions in new settlements in the Northwest, I take the liberty to mail you a few lines about our settlement.” He would then go on to describe in detail developments and circumstances in his region. Hundreds of such letters appeared in the paper’s columns. Decorah-Posten served as a clearinghouse for immigrant thought, giving [95] opportunity for countrymen to find each other, to refresh common memories, and to experience a sense of community. {28}

Perhaps the most popular correspondence came from Norway and Denmark, from the latter because the paper tried to attract a Danish-American readership. In 1924, Decorah-Posten had twenty-six regular Norwegian correspondents, a few having written for the paper for thirty years. Prestgard described their contributions as “a large clear window that turns toward the immigrant’s home bygd and his own youth with all its precious memories.” The letters told of happenings, great and small, of births and deaths, of familiar modes of livelihood, of snow and storm - all as they pertained to the local community. No American or Norwegian paper could duplicate the local news coverage found in the immigrant papers. It was said that people in Norway subscribed to Decorah-Posten to find out what was happening in their own country. Actually, the many readers in the homeland subscribed to the paper to be informed about conditions among immigrants in America. {29}

Posten, in the manner of other immigrant newspapers, had an extremely democratic tone. Norwegian-American journals concerned themselves with items hardly considered newsworthy by more sophisticated standards. In their reporting of surprise parties, picnics, the deaths of ordinary folk, the activities of small organizations, and the like, they resembled local news sheets in many small communities in America at present. A Norwegian newcomer in 1913 wrote to Decorah-Posten to complain that its policy apparently was to “run around with a wheelbarrow and indiscriminately collect this and that.” He objected to the inclusion of “all this information about persons, which is completely without interest except for [96] the individual who gets his name in the paper.” The editorial reply was predictable: in America, an editor - as might be the case in Norway - did not find it beneath his dignity to show interest in the common man. “We are not ashamed of Ole Olsen - either the newspapers or the public,” expressed the editor’s egalitarian view of American society. {30}

Only through an editorial policy that spanned all aspects of the immigrant community could a paper like Decorah-Posten gain favor and serve a useful purpose. Rhetorically, Prestgard in 1924 asked a number of questions that express the broad concerns of the paper: “Has the Norwegian-American press from the pioneer period to the present had any significance or usefulness? For our churches and their work? Or for our schools? Or for our organizations and clubs? Or for the Sons of Norway and our bygdelag? Or for everything that is included in the concepts of ‘ancestral heritage’ and ‘Norwegian cultural interests’? Is there any useful enterprise which has not benefited from the press? Would our life here in our new adopted country have turned out in the same way if there never had been a Norwegian-American press?” His lengthy reply is superfluous. No other immigrant institution, except the church, entered more intimately into all facets of the lives of Norwegian Americans. {31}

A unique contribution was made in a cartoon series created by a Spring Grove farmer, Peter J. Rosendahl, called “Han Ola og han Per.” His drawings, which began appearing in 1918, became one of Decorah-Posten’s most talked about features. By the time of his death in 1942, Rosendahl, who had immigrant parents, had drawn more than seven hundred cartoons. They have since been reprinted many times. The artist was a quiet and modest man. But in the ludicrous situations in which he placed his protagonists, Ola and Per, he [97] revealed a vivid imagination and a unique sense of humor. To achieve his effects, he used mixed Norwegian vernaculars and intended ridicule of Norwegian-American life. The drawings are commentaries on the hardships of the period. The characters, however, take in stride the frustrations and problems that come their way; they endeavor to improve their lot by hard work as well as by innovation and ingenuity - their efforts often ending in disaster. If the cartoonist communicated a message to the readers, it was that they should discover refreshing release by laughing at their own peculiarities and circumstances.

Rosendahl discontinued the series for a time in 1921 by having his two heroes take off across the ocean in a strange flying contraption; the reason for the interruption, as Ola and Per stated in their typical mixture of English and Norwegian, was: “Vi har blevet saa gørande leie af at ækte for Decorah-Posten at vi har besluttet at tage os en Vakashun.” (We have become so completely fed up with acting for Decorah-Posten that we have decided to take a vacation.) Immediately after the break began, letters streamed in to the paper asking for the return of “Han Ola og han Per.” The popularity of the artist’s illustrations of the human condition, and his poking fun at familiar immigrant experiences show us that by 1918 Norwegian Americans constituted an ethnic group with established traditions and culture. They were secure enough in their identity to take delight in their own eccentric qualities. {32}

The paper as a whole reflected its identity with an older tradition. Posten would be different, both in format and language, from the journals printed in regions of more recent immigration, such as the Pacific Northwest [98] and the Eastern states. Because the newspapers in the Middle West had been established at a time when the literary languages of Norway and Denmark were almost identical, the orthographic differences from others were the most apparent. In 1926 the editor explained how the paper identified linguistically with an older Norwegian culture: “We recently looked through the first volume of Decorah-Posten and found that the paper’s linguistic form in 1874 was almost exactly the same as in 1926. And all other Norwegian papers in the Northwest are the same. But this has put us in the strange position that our papers have a dress that no longer exists either in the language of Norway or Denmark. We have become something for ourselves between the two.” A traditional spelling, sprinkled with elements from English, gave Decorah-Posten its unique character.

In 1939, the paper introduced a spelling reform to bring its orthography into line with the 1907 changes in written Norwegian. These changes, however, ignored the much more substantial reforms adopted in Norway in 1917 and 1938. Decorah-Posten continued to capitalize nouns until 1961, to use Danish-voiced consonants after vowels almost to the end, and to print the paper in Gothic type until 1952. The appearance of the printed page did not alter greatly until just before the paper’s demise, when Innvik introduced a more current Norwegian orthography and syntax. News releases and correspondence from Norway had been edited to conform to the paper’s linguistic policy. Its readers evidently preferred its traditional appearance, and its distribution actually identified those who were attached to an older Norwegian culture. The eventual price the paper paid was to look old-fashioned and unappealing to the younger generation as well as to later arrivals from Norway. In 1959 Innvik described Decorah-Posten as “a newspaper written for old people by old people.” {33} [99]

In its small Iowa-town setting, Decorah-Posten and its staff became respected and influential members of the community. The publication never ignored its beginnings as a local medium, and, throughout its existence, it carried a special section on Decorah and vicinity. This part of the paper reports a vigorous Norwegian-American activity. Together with Luther College, Posten provided an environment in which such organizations of note as Symra, a literary society, and the Luren male chorus could gain wide recognition and support. The stability and fame of the Norwegian-American institutions in Decorah attracted distinguished visitors from Norway and from other parts of the United States. There was a constant influx of well-known personalities, who enjoyed the extensive sociability encouraged by the town’s size and self-contained character; in turn, they gave inspiration and established contacts with the homeland. Einar Haugen, in a letter to the author, has expressed his opinion that, with few exceptions, “there was no more intellectually and emotionally satisfying milieu in Norwegian America than Decorah.”

Decorah-Posten’s publisher always adhered to strict commercial considerations and provided a modest, but secure, livelihood for the people who served the paper. It was possible to live in comfort at less expense in a small town, and publication costs were also lower. In 1910, the B. Anundsen Publishing Company was formed; it became the official publisher of Decorah-Posten, with R. B. Bergeson as business manager until 1947, when he was replaced by B. B. Anundsen, a son of B. Anundsen. The elder Anundsen died in 1913, but the business principles he had established, with an added spirit of frugality, continued to characterize the firm’s operations. {34} [100] Decorah-Posten retained a substantial circulation partly because it survived its competitors and inherited their subscribers, as they passed out of existence. It absorbed Minneapolis Tidende in 1935 and Skandinaven in 1941. Thereby it combined the three major Norwegian-language papers in the Middle West. Through the predecessors of the two other journals, it extended its history back to Emigmanten (The Emigrant), a pioneer Wisconsin paper established in 1852. A further consolidation occurred with other immigrant papers. As a result, in 1950 Decorah-Posten still had more than 30,000 subscribers. When it merged with Western Viking in Seattle, in December, 1972, it had 4,263 subscribers and was continuing to be a profitable enterprise. An average annual reduction in circulation of seven per cent, coupled with uncertainties in providing editorial service, prompted B. B. Anundsen to let the paper die - less than nine months from the start of its centennial year.

The passing of Decorah-Posten signified the closing of an era and the loss of a vigorous spokesman for a cherished tradition. It was, of course, inevitable that the end should come. The Norwegian-American press had been created to meet a special need, and it could play a leading role only so long as that need existed. Earlier, Prestgard had predicted that the foreign-language press would not mourn its own demise, nor mark it with fanfare, but “when its mission is done, it will cease by itself, just as quietly as it came into being.” {35}

Notes

<1> The author has mainly investigated the files of Decorah-Posten housed in the Preus Library on the Luther College campus. See Barbara Levorsen, Early Years in Dakota,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 21:161 (1962).

<2> Ved Arnen: Et Tidsskrift for Skjønliteratur, September 1, 1866; Familie-Læsning, Illustrert (Decorah, Iowa), October, 1896; Decorah-Posten, March 28, 1913.

<3> Kirkelig Maanedstidende, January 1, 1868.

<4> Familie-Læsning, October, 1896.

<5> Decorah-Posten, September 5, 1874, March 28, 1913, September 5, 1924, September 1, 1949.

<6> Decorah-Posten, September 5, 1874; Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, 76-96, 228-229 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1938).

<7> Johs. B. Wist, Norsk-amerikanernes festskrift 1914, 72 (Decorah, 1914); Decorah-Posten, October 31, 1911, September 20, 27, November 12, 1912, September 7, 1934.

<8> Decorah-Posten, June 21, 1903, September 1, 1949.

<9> Decorah-Posten, October 29, 1874; Laurence M. Larson, The Changing West and Other Essays, 52-53 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1937).

<10> Decorah-Posten, December 5, 1874, February 11, September 2, 1875, September 27, 1877, August 6, November 4, 1884.

<11> Decorah-Posten, September 1, 1949.

<12> The novel ran as a serial from December 3, 1884, to April 22, 1885, and shortly thereafter was available in book form. In Decorah-Posten, September 5, 1924, H. A. Foss tells humorously of how the novel came to be printed in that paper. See O. M. Norlie, History of the Norwegian People in America, 300 (Minneapolis, 1925).

<13> Decorah-Posten, September 16, 1886, November 27, 1894, August 16, 1910, January 10, 1911, September 1, 1949; Familie-Læsning, October, 1896; interview with B. B. Anundsen in Decorah, June 10, 1975.

<14> Decorah-Posten, in its issues of October 18 and November 8, 1882, gives the content of the revived literary supplement, but these issues of Ved Arnen have not been preserved. See Ved Arnen, September 28, 1887, and later files in the Preus Library.

<15> Decorah-Posten, March 20, 1936, contains a statement about Norwegian and Norwegian-American literature. See also files of Ved Arnen.

<16> Decorah-Posten, December 22, 1880, January 8, April 4, May 9, 1924, August 20, 1935.

<17> See files of Ved Arnen.

<18> Larson, The Changing West, 53.

<19> Decorah-Posten, September 7, 1934. In this issue, Kristian Prestgard gives his impression of men who worked for the paper in an article entitled “De som faldt langs veien.” See also Wist, Festskrift, 183.

<20> Decorah-Posten, September 7, 1934; Wist, Festskrift, 78-79.

<21> Decorah-Posten, September 7, 1934; Wist, Festskrift, 79-80.

<22> Decorah-Posten, January 31, 1946; Decorah Public Opinion, January 30, 1946; Wist, Festskrift, 80. As a tribute to the Norse-American Centennial in 1925, Prestgard’s essay on “The Tragedy of an Immigrant” was printed in the Congressional Record; it was translated into English by Knut Gjerset and presented by Congressman Knud Wefald.

<23> Decorah-Posten, December 2, 1927.

<24> Decorah-Posten, September 7, 1934, September 1, 1949. Because of his career in the National Guard, Brandt was always militarily correct.

<25> Decorah-Posten, November 17, 1931; Einar Haugen letter to the author, July 1975.

<26> Decorah-Posten, January 7, 1930, lists the regular features and announces a new one called “Magic and Witchcraft.”

<27> Decorah-Posten, December 4, 1894, November 15, 1901, September 1, 1949; N. W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory, 141, 234 (Philadelphia, 1897); 166, 253 (Philadelphia, 1910); 247, 334 (Philadelphia, 1925).

<28> Decorah-Posten, November 10, 1880, September 5, 1924.

<29> Decorah-Posten, September 5, 1924.

<30> Decorah-Posten, August 26, 1913.

<31> Decorah-Posten, September 5, 1924.

<32> Decorah-Posten, April 16, April 26, May 28, August 2, 1918, July 2, August 27, 1920, September 30, October 1, 1921. See John Wogsland, “Peter Julius Rosendahl,” a student classroom paper at Luther College; interviews with Anna T. Rosendahl, Paul E. Rosendahl, and Georgia Rosendahl, June 13, 1975.

<33> Decorah-Posten, January 5, 1926, March 9, 1961, January 7, 1971. See also Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior, 1:148-149 (Bloomington, Indiana, 1969); Erling Innvik letter to the author, February 6, 1976.

<34> Decorah-Posten, April 1, 1913, February 19, 1970; interview with B. B. Anundsen, June 10, 1975; Haugen letter, July, 1975; Innvik letter, February 6, 1976.

<35> Circulation statistics, B. Anundsen Publishing Company; Decorah-Posten, September 5, 1924. The last issue of Decorah-Posten is dated December 28, 1972.


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