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Sondre Norheim: Folk Hero to Immigrant
    by John Weinstock (Volume 29: Page 339)

THE UNITED STATES, in the course of two centuries, has welcomed many and diverse ethnic groups, and their cultures have gradually become part of the very fabric of this country. Beginning with the departure of Cleng Peerson and his group in 1825, upwards of half a million Norwegians had headed westward by the end of the nineteenth century to tie their destinies to the growing nation. Their achievements are manifold and well documented. Not so well known perhaps is the role played by Norwegians in the development of the sport of skiing and in its spread throughout the world. As a diversion skiing has flourished in recent years nearly everywhere that snow is to be found. Though its origins extend well back into the Stone Age, it could not become a sport until certain steps were taken in Norway during the last century. It was mainly Norwegians who kept skiing alive and popular until it could develop as a sport; it was one Norwegian’s invention that brought about the transition; and it was Norwegians who contributed to the growth of the sport before they emigrated and once in the United States helped make it popular here. The purpose of this article is to outline Sondre Norheim’s contributions to skiing and also to consider why a folk hero [340] of his stature would choose to leave his native Telemark. {1}

The ski and its close relative the snowshoe have long been part of circumpolar man’s tool kit. They were invented near the end of the Stone Age soon after the bow and arrow, and thus predate even the advent of agriculture. Among the hard evidence suggesting such an early origin are a rock carving from Rødøy in Helgeland of a hunter on skis which has been dated at around 2000 B.C. and a ski found in a peat bog at Hoting in Sweden which is about 4,500 years old. {2} This Hoting ski is quite advanced technologically; more primitive types must have existed earlier. It can also be shown that the ski is an offshoot of the snowshoe. How did these devices come into existence? One theory has it that when the last glacial period ended around 9000 B.C., the reindeer herds headed north to the colder regions they preferred. {3} Hunters dependent on the reindeer followed them north but were impeded by the deep snows of the boreal forests, and since “necessity is the mother of invention,” snowshoes and skis were created to aid hunters in reaching their prey. {4} On distributional grounds it appears that the snowshoe must have been invented in the Altai mountain region of the Soviet Union by 7000 B.C. or earlier, after which it slowly spread east and west. The peoples indigenous to the circumpolar area have always been conservative culturally; innovations were very slow to be adopted. {5} Snowshoes were so useful, though, that all northern Eurasian inland hunters came to possess them and they were carried on to the New World across the Bering Strait.
Early primitive snowshoes took many forms. One type was of solid wood, with occasionally an animal skin stretched over the bottom, its hairs pointing to the rear to prevent sliding backward. Some time later the gliding [341] motion was added to this solid wooden snowshoe, thereby creating the first ski. Curiously, the gliding motion was never added to the snowshoes of the New World, which proceeded to evolve along different lines. So it was Norwegians who first brought the knowledge of how to make skis to America. In northern Eurasia, however, skis and snowshoes have coexisted for centuries, each with different functions. {6} It is possible that the ancestors of the Lapps are to be credited with the invention of the ski, though transitional forms can be found even today among other circumpolar peoples such as the Samoyeds; and the Hoting ski mentioned above is of a type not found among Finno-Ugric peoples but rather among the forerunners of Scandinavians farther south. Though these early details are conjectural, it is certain that skis have been used in Scandinavia for many centuries, mainly as a hunting accessory to facilitate travel over snow-covered terrain.

By the nineteenth century one might suppose that the ski would have been on the point of vanishing. Hunting was no longer important to subsistence and urban folk now had horses and roads. The Norwegian military, after early setbacks at the hands of the Swedes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had begun a long tradition of successful deployment of ski troops. Tales of their subsequent victories over the Swedes are legion, and at one time some 2,000 skiers were in the army. But in 1826 ski exercises for soldiers were eliminated and the ski companies disbanded.
Yet skiing was perhaps more vital than ever in Norway because of the profound changes in social structure brought about by a rapidly increasing population from the end of the eighteenth century. The cultivation of the potato, the introduction of the smallpox vaccination, and other improvements in diet and sanitation had [342] contributed to a falling death rate. {7} The new multitudes could not easily be accommodated until much later by what was essentially an agrarian society. Since only 3 percent of Norway’s land was arable, little new land remained to be cleared, and the destiny of most young people in rural areas was membership in the lower classes as tenant farmers, cotters, landless workers, and servants. Many of these people eventually left Norway for America, yet the rural population continued to grow and along with it rural poverty increased dramatically.
In Telemark there was even less suitable land than in other areas of Norway; and what little clearing went on consisted of dividing up large farms and renting out portions to tenant farmers. {8} Here as elsewhere the oldest son in a large family had the right to inherit the farm, while the other sons became tenant farmers and the daughters usually had to be satisfied marrying tenant farmers themselves. The land available for tenant farming was often of inferior quality, away from what roads there were, and usually on hills. Torjus Loupedalen puts it nicely, “Haslaråsen, Åmlundfjøll, Kleivmånin - they all cling to the mountain or jut out from its side.” {9} With little access to horses and wagons and with snow on the ground for a good five months of the year the only means of transportation during winter for these people was skis, and how essential they were. “Skis are the horse and amusement of the tenant firmer.” {10}
Fortunately skis were available to everyone: with plentiful supplies of wood all that was needed was time and a few tools, both of which every tenant farmer had. The wood was selected in the fall and left to age, and then skis were made on winter evenings. From childhood everyone had his own skis. It is often said that Norwegian children learn to ski before they learn to walk. This was certainly close to the truth for the children brought up on the tenant firms in the hills of [343] Telemark during the last century. Down those hills on skis they went; if they fell, the snow cushioned the fall. Some became more adept than others, but all were capable, young and old. Skis were still used for hunting, for logging, and generally for anything that involved covering more than short distances. One example will illustrate this: a tenant farmer who did not possess a hay barn would cut and stack his hay in the fields or on heaths some distance away. In winter he would pile hay on a drag sled and pull ft home using skis if there was not a hard crust on top of the snow. It was not easy pulling ft uphill, but skiing downhill holding onto the arms of the drag sled behind was even more demanding. He had to be strong and have good reflexes; a mistake could mean serious injury. Wood was brought home in the same way. It goes without saying that the tenant farmers who did this were competent skiers. They were also used to covering great distances regularly. This point is well illustrated in the story of a Christiania lawyer who was at Mogen and wanted company to Sandhaug. Kristofer, the local inhabitant who was to go with him, had just returned from the mountains and was eating porridge. The lawyer, with a superior air, remarked on Kristofer’s thinness and attributed ft to his diet of porridge. Kristofer picked up a sack and they started off. He had trouble keeping up for the first mile since he had a load and the lawyer did not But as the journey progressed the lawyer fell farther and farther behind. When they came to Sandhaug the lawyer was exhausted, while Kristofer walked just as easily as when they had begun. ‘Well,” he said, “I guess the porridge boy was too tough for you after all.” {11}

In addition to its utilitarian value, skiing was a favorite pastime in winter. A. O. Vinje, the poet, wrote in 1853, “In Morgedal people skied more than most, and not [344] more than twenty years ago you could see grown-up men as well as small boys out skiing on Sunday.” {12} Whole families would trek to church on skis and then spend much of Sunday skiing. Vinje commented, “There was another kind of life on Sundays then than now when one sits inside drinking coffee or whiskey. They ate their Sunday dinner, got their skis, and went over to the ski hill. Down steep slopes, over crags, knolls, and stone piles, even off houses they went as if glued to their ski straps. They did not become dizzy when their eyes dripped and ran, they were enshrouded in a mist and appeared like hawks through the clouds. It was a great shame to get an ‘old maid’ (møykjerring), and you couldn’t stop until you righted it. If you got too many old maids, you didn’t get to dance with the girls on Sunday evening. Try to court them and they just giggled.” {13} In fact dancing went hand in hand with skiing. Both required good reflexes, agility, and endurance, and as physical exertion they helped to release pent-up feelings. The bitter realities of poverty and the workaday world were briefly forgotten. The dance rhythms were wild and rapid. “Boys and girls fired up by the tempos threw themselves into whirling dance turns, wild and wilder until the boy felt that he had reached the point where his body no longer resisted and the law of gravity was suspended . . . For a moment, for an evening he was beyond the limit where breath and muscles could be felt. . . He was released. And then all of a sudden he was dropped back into a cold and demanding day of hard toil - red warmth dipped into cold water.” {14}

The roots of skiing as a sport actually go quite far back. Legend has it that Harald the Ruthless forced the boy Heming to ski down the treacherous Snara mountain. Not only did he survive the run but he ripped off some of the king’s clothing before he disappeared. {15} Even before [345] that, skiing was said to belong in every highborn warrior’s education. Both kings and chieftains were practiced in it. {16} The military started skiing competitions for soldiers and ordinary citizens in 1767 with lucrative prizes at stake in the equivalent of modern ski-shooting, giant slalom, downhill, and cross-country, and these competitions continued on a regular basis until the ski companies were disbanded. {17} Skiing, then, by the early nineteenth century was flourishing, at least in the rural areas of Norway, and was particularly important for the lower classes who could not afford more expensive means of conveyance. And though it was not yet a full-fledged sport, these same lower-class people derived much of their amusement in winter from skiing, and the stage was set for the emergence of skiing as an international sport.
All that was lacking was provided virtually single-handedly by the exploits of Sondre Norheim from Morgedal in Telemark. {18} His contribution was a threefold one: 1) devising a binding that allowed sharp turning; 2) perfecting a ski shape which went on to become the model for modern Alpine skis; and 3) most importantly, bringing off feats of daredevilry on skis that left onlookers agape and turned him into a folk hero.
Ski bindings until Sondre’s time came in two main varieties, both of which were toe bindings, a toe strap of rawhide or a toe loop made from a twisted willow twig known as a withy or osier. In either case the shoe or boot was pushed forward through the toe binding. It was thus very easy to slip on a pair of skis and set out; however, neither binding kept the foot rigidly in place. It must have been very frustrating to have the skis come off so easily. Imagine being suspended in the middle of a jump and losing one or both skis. The rawhide strap was the older of the two bindings and was very durable but it tended to stretch when wet and was never stiff. [346] Moreover, for the lower-class people of Telemark rawhide was expensive. Withies, on the other hand, were readily available; one simply gathered them during the summer and let them dry until winter came. Withies were quite rigid, too, but did not wear very well. A skier was wise to carry extras so as not to get stranded. Even the withy toe binding did not allow sharp turns in powder snow since the ankle could turn without the ski following. This was an age-old problem for which various solutions had been tried. Several of the Lapp groups combined the toe strap with a strap around the heel with some degree of success. The military tried this, as well as combinations of a toe strap and a block of wood behind the heel, or a withy toe loop plus a heel strap. None of these, however, were entirely satisfactory. The innovation Sondre is generally given credit for was quite simple, a withy toe loop with a withy heel loop attached to it. Here was an inexpensive binding which made precise turning and steering a reality, a prerequisite for the development of the sport.
Sondre’s impact on the shape and type of the ski itself was not so decisive, for others produced similar skis following models that had long been available in Telemark. But Sondre did fashion some very fine skis, and the fact that he used his own skis in his remarkable feats probably had much to do with eliminating competing types. Strangely, the favored type among East Norwegians and the military was the so-called “unequal-length” skis, a long left ski to glide on and a shorter, fur-clad right ski to push with. They were quite good for going uphill in the days before the advent of waxes or the “no-wax” skis of today. Typical Telemark skis were of equal length, without fur covering, and were more suited for hilly country. In competitions early in the nineteenth century they proved to be superior to unequal-length skis, and the latter were soon forgotten. The most important feature of their shape was the width, [347] broader at the front, narrowing gradually toward the middle where the foot rested and then becoming slightly wider toward the rear. With the ski narrowest at the middle the withy binding did not abrade as much against the snow and so lasted longer.
It was mainly as a skier that Sondre achieved fame not only in Telemark but also in Christiania and elsewhere in Norway. Before surveying some of his accomplishments it will be helpful to describe the terrain skiers were used to in Telemark. Sondre Norheim came from Morgedal, which Torjus Loupedalen called “the cradle of the sport of skiing.” It lies in the heart of Telemark in an area of narrow valleys surrounded by mountain peaks, with numerous streams and tarns. There is little level ground; it is rather a question of degree of slope, with a constantly varying terrain of ridges, heaths, knolls, cliffs, scree patches, and groves of trees. Land newly cleared by tenant farmers was likely to be situated on the mountain slopes, so it is not surprising that these people who relied on skis in winter were adept at getting around such undulating terrain.

There was a special jargon in Telemark for classifying according to difficulty the trails or tracks that were skied in winter. The basis of these compound expressions is the second element låm, which Ivar Aasen describes as “a track made by something that is pulled or dragged along.” {19} The easiest variety was the slalåm, a word now in the international vocabulary. Slad, very gradually inclining, when combined with lam, slalåm, referred to what one might today call the “baby” slopes, those used in Telemark by boys and girls not yet able to try themselves on the more challenging runs. They were told, “go ski slalåm.” Other terms were kneikelåm (a course with lots of knolls), ufselåm (a trail off a cliff), hopplåm (with jumps along the course), svinglåm (with turns). [348] The term reserved for the most challenging and difficult course was uvyrdslåm, or “daredevil” run, which contained turns, jumps, knolls, everything an expert skier could want. Occasionally a ladder was stretched from a house up a hill. When it was packed with snow it made a nice jump. Naturally a daredevil skier had to have superior reflexes so as to turn abruptly, to control the skis so as to avoid obstacles often unknown in advance.
Only a rare person could ski a dangerous and complicated uvyrdslåm or daredevil run, and the run plus the skier who survived it became famous in Morgedal and environs. It then stood as a challenge to other free spirits in the area. Herein is found the greatest difference between top-class skiing then and now. Olympic medal winners today are recognized but not the courses they won their medals on. To be sure there are famous runs such as the Kandahar downhill or jumps such as Holmenkollen, but countless excellent skiers have gone down them, whereas the daredevil runs of a century ago became legendary when only one or two skiers had the courage to try them. Loupedalen describes one such run that was unsuccessful: “Under a high ridge on one of the farms there was a large, bushy, two-forked aspen. A man called Gunnleik Olavsson made a dash on the ridge and put down a track so it sent him through the cleft in the tree. But he got stuck with one ski and foot in the cleft. He felt pain from it the rest of his life. And he had been at war, Gunnleik, for seven years, they said.” {20}

Suffice it to say that Sondre Norheim has far more such daredevil runs to his credit than any other of the great Telemark skiers. Many of his feats were witnessed with incredulous eyes; in fact, the chance to awe beholders often stirred Sondre to action. “Sondre once took such a bold run at Åse in Flateland. At Åse there is a gorge called Årdalen. One Sunday a bunch of boys had [349] gathered there to ski. Then Sondre came. He stood a while watching, and asked whether they wanted to bet that he could not ski off the barn at Åse, where it was highest, down to Årdal. They said he couldn’t do it, but no bets were made. Nevertheless, Sondre went up and jumped from the barn roof. From there he went at wild speed, made some tremendous jumps, and landed in the deepest part of Årdalen. Everyone thought it was a splendid run. No one has ever dared it since.” {21}
One of his most memorable runs occurred when he and his cousin Tallev attempted to ski the Kastedal shoot. Sondre was close to fifty at this time; they were on their way home after cutting wood. Aslak Bergland described the incident in the following verses:

  Tallev Kastedal and Sondre
Once walked the timber woods.
Both had skis and axes;
Tallev had his gun too.
Hard they hewed all day
On the fat fir trees;
Each one took down
His dozen splendid logs.
  Up at Kastedal they stopped
When at evening they headed home.
Down through the wild shoot
A long time they stood and gazed.
At the top were cliffs and sloping trails,
Then by the house it was steeper;
There was a big knoll down at Moskei,
Where the hill ended at the shore.
  “Shall we ski off here?”
Said Sondre, teasingly.
Tallev answered: “You go first!
I’ll follow like your shadow.”
He put the axe on his shoulder, [350]
Tallev put his gun at rest;
Then both fellows glided
Down the terrible slopes.
  They skied the cliff jump by jump;
Down knolls and narrow places they flew.
Across ridges and crevices;
Snow like dust around them whirled.
When they came down toward the house,
Just where the shoot was steepest
Sondre kept on flying,
But there on the slope Tallev fell.
  Sondre didn’t stop until the tarn;
Quickly he looked back up the shoot.
From the deep, where Tallev landed,
Gusts of snow flew into the air.
Up from the snow stood a pipe
That could only be the gun.
Sondre called out to him:
“Be careful. Don’t shoot me!”
  Tallev freezing scrambled up;
He saw the tracks below him.
Just this last little bit
Is horrible to look at;
No one has since dared it,
Much less Sondre’s path.
Never will the Kastedal shoot
Be run by another skier. {22}

The extent of this man’s achievements in his native Telemark can only be surmised. Some of the tales have grown out of proportion, and many have long since been forgotten; but the stories are remarkably uniform - this was a man recognized even by people who did not know him well as an exceptional talent. His fame outside Telemark had more to do with promoting the cause of skiing as a sport and did not come until he was advanced in age, [351] at least for an activity requiring instant reflexes. The chance came with a competition in Christiania arranged by Centralforeningen for Udbredelse af Legemsøvelser og Vaabenbrug (Central Society for the Promotion of Physical Exercise and Weapon Use), one of the first official races after the military competitions were disbanded. It was to be a continuous loop of two and a half kilometers over some of the terrain of the city. More importantly though, lucrative prizes were offered, up to the equivalent of ten dollars, a considerable amount of money for poor country people. Sondre and a couple of pals put some food in their backpacks, donned their skis, and headed for Christiania, skiing the whole way. Competitors were judged on elapsed time with points for style. The fifty-one participants started at one-and-a-half-minute intervals. The following day a newspaper reported: “Excelling especially were the men from Telemark and Trysil with the carefree confidence with which they pulled out all the stops without touching the ground with a pole. Of the entire group the winner of the first prize stood far above any of the others. There was something so remarkable about his racing and his movement on skis that one had to believe that for him it was the natural way to move.” {23} This was Sondre, of course, now in his forty-fourth year. The city folk were overwhelmed by the ease and the elegance of form with which Sondre went around the supposedly demanding course. When Sondre returned home with his first prize money, he was asked about the great courses they had skied in Christiania. Sondre replied, “Sure the courses were great, but, you know, I could have skied them with a sack of potatoes on my back.” {24}
Sondre had found friends and admirers in Christiania and a source of modest income, albeit seasonal in nature. His last Christiania race came when he was over fifty and could no longer defy the laws of nature. By then [352] skiing was well on its way to becoming the national sport of Norway, with annual competitions in many locales and competitors from far and wide. And Sondre was now a folk hero and a legend. In the end it was his great love for skiing that stood out: even if the prize money had not been sorely needed, he would have gone anywhere to compete. Or as Sondre put it, “If they could ski my course at Haugliufsi today then I would go over to Kjørkjenuta and make another one for them to try to follow.” {25}

What about Sondre the man? He was born at Øverbø on June 10, 1825, up on a hill, to be sure, in an area where “only in spots does the terrain take a breather in quiet dales and hollow valleys.” {26} All the children eventually had to ski down similar hills, everyone of which was a “daredevil” run. He had a brother two years older, Eivind Mostaul, who achieved fame as a skimaker. Of the two, Eivind was the easier to manage, a nice boy, while Sondre was from the beginning wild and restless. He was small in stature but tough and sinewy. One of the first things he learned was the making of weaver’s reeds, which often occupied the whole family and continued to be an occasional source of income to Sondre in later years. He also tried his hand at other types of work, carpentry, blacksmithing, lumbering, but was not always one to finish what he started, and when the call of the slopes came, he was ready to drop everything. He had plenty of older skiers to pattern himself after, and he had heard tales of the difficult runs that had been skied in the area. Before long he was excelling on the enticing old trails and making his own new ones. In many cases a run on fresh powder snow from the top of a peak down to the valley was visible to the whole village, one narrow track - good style meant skis together - broken only for the jumps. It was the long, high jumps off cliffs and crags which amazed people and were remembered. When [353] going off a cliff or a housetop he strove for both height and length of jump. Many of his runs involved showing off, clowning around, or doing something others thought crazy. One time a bridal procession was on the way home from church when Sondre came skiing down the hillside with a bowl of beer in one hand. Bending his knees at the right times and holding the bowl at the right angle he arrived at the procession and gave the bride the first drink, all without spilling a drop. Perhaps Sondre got the idea for this feat from folklore. Good fun for one was folly for another. Consider the time he was skiing downhill at high speed and purposely headed toward a large sawing contraption. Everyone thought he would kill himself, but he managed to squeeze through the opening in the device and continued down the hill, making an incredible jump of thirty meters or so on the way.
Sondre worked in various villages in the area, and everywhere he had the reputation of being a first-rate dancer as well as a skier. He married Rannei Amundsdotter in 1854. They rented and cleared some land at Sudbøkasin where they settled. He had his eye on another piece of land, but the owner did not want Sondre as a tenant because he was too openhanded. There were, naturally, many people who could not appreciate his skiing feats because they produced no income. Sondre and Rannei both worked hard to make a go of it, Sondre cutting wood, making skis and furniture, even serving as a doctor, bleeding people and treating their corns and blisters. Five years there was enough: the rent was high and the land virtually barren, so they moved on to Nordbøn. Here they could fish in Breivatn, but getting grain and potatoes to grow in swamp land and gravel was no easier than in the other place. It was impossible to scrape out a decent living. They moved again, this time to a better place in the middle of the community, which they called Norheim after a large [354] farm at Bø. One time Sondre was given a bushel of seed potatoes by the poor-relief agency. He planted them, but soon he dug them up and ate them. Sondre’s excuse was that he would rather have planted turnips. When there was not enough wood to burn, Sondre tore down part of the barn, and Rannei and the children made frequent rounds begging from the neighbors.
But through all the poverty Sondre did not change much; when the slopes beckoned, he was ready. It was a harsh winter when one of his sons was due for baptism. Sondre and Rannei set out on skis on the hard-crusted snow, taking turns carrying the infant. Reaching a steep slope that would have been a difficult run even on powder, Sondre skied it with the boy under his arm. His love of skiing never faded. Loupedalen puts it nicely, “In Sondre the desire to ski is a quietly shining flame that burns as clearly in the grown man as in the small lad. We see him having fun on the cliffs as a ragged and happy Ashlad, we see him up in years, poor and frozen, waiting up on a hill until they shout ‘Come,’ - and we see him fall on the knolls, poor, gray, worn out. But we also watch the small boys picking him up, as old as he is. He gives them what he has and what he is happiest with - skiing.” {26a} He taught many to ski. He must have been quite a sight on skis, his wide pants flapping in the wind and his gray hair down to his shoulders. But if he was not there, they went to Norheim to get him, for he had much to give them.
A man ahead of his time, though he became a folk hero in Norway he could not reap the monetary gains from his fame that would have allowed him to remain there. His second oldest son went to relatives in America in 1878, and no doubt there were America letters over the next six years to Sondre and Rannei which caused them to pull up stakes in spite of their advanced age - both were 59 - and head for northern Dakota Territory with [355] four of their six children. Though it meant leaving his beloved slopes for the flat prairie, Sondre was ready. In the end his reasons for leaving were no different from those of countless other Norwegians from rural upland areas. The New World offered hope and escape from hard times. He died in 1897 and was buried at Norway Church in Denbigh, North Dakota. That same year a ski festival was held in Morgedal in his memory. A few quotations from the memorial speech show the debt so many owed to Sondre: “The man who spent his time so that many can gather now for a celebration in the open air, for a celebration of something as good and fair as skiing, his name is Sondre Norheim. He is the one who made the sport of skiing what it is now, and when we realize that this is a happy sign of the times, a force which has brought together continents, nations, peoples, and parties for peaceful competition and sacrifice, then we must say that ft was a great achievement. . . Sondre was a pioneer. Is it possible to conceive of a Nansen voyage if there hadn’t been a Sondre Norheim?. . . He was a skier alone, a complete, ideal, well-integrated man
No one has followed in the tracks of Sonde.” {27}

The development of skiing from a practical necessity in rural nineteenth-century Norway into an internationally enjoyed pastime was hurried along by Sondre Norheim’s manifold contributions. This dual function, utility and diversion, was to continue in an America where the ski was unknown until the Norwegians arrived. The utilitarian function is best exemplified by the efforts of a Norwegian immigrant, John Thoresen Rui. Rui, from Tinn in Telemark, came to the Fox River, Illinois, settlement in 1837 at the age of ten. {28} Fourteen years later he was among the many Norwegians who headed for California to seek their fortunes in gold. Though he did not find much gold, he achieved lasting fame as a mail [356] carrier on skis. Beginning in 1855 he hauled the mail over the mountains between Carson Valley, Nevada, and Placerville, California, in winter when the Pony Express was inactive. To the astonishment of the local residents he covered the ninety-odd miles each way on skis which he fashioned himself, at the same time carrying up to one hundred pounds of mail. And he continued to do it for twenty years. This was, of course, “Snowshoe” Thompson, the appelation stemming from the only similar devices Americans were familiar with. Other Norwegians who had joined the Gold Rush took to skiing when the snows arrived, and there were even some downhill races with gold for prizes.
The latter, sportive function of skiing in America developed strongly toward the end of the nineteenth century with Norwegian Americans at the forefront, and here the legacy of Sondre shines through. Only the highlights need be mentioned. In 1882 Carl Illstrup from Drammen was instrumental in founding the Minneapolis Ski Club, and the number of ski clubs in Minnesota and Wisconsin mushroomed soon thereafter. Most of the members were Norwegians, and each club had its special uniform. The Red Wing club members, for instance, were bedecked in blue pants, blue jackets, and blue caps, the jackets and caps with gold trim. Speeches were given in Norwegian, and songs were sung, one of the most popular being:

Ja, ja, vi vil ha
lutefisk og lefse
brennevin og snus.

And regular competitions were held which soon came to include ski jumping. Forty elite immigrant skiers from Telemark were among the regular winners, and all of them owed a great debt to Sondre’s pioneering efforts. The most famous were the Hemmestveit brothers, [357] Mikkel and Torjus, who took turns pushing up the world record for ski jumping to 102 and 103 feet in 1892 and 1893, respectively. Mention should also be made of Aksel Holter from Christiania who settled in Ishpeming in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He ordered several pairs of skis from Norway’s first ski factory in 1900, and soon he began to produce skis for Americans. He also published a yearbook on skiing beginning in 1905. Finally Carl Hovelsen, also from Christiania, ski jumped for the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1907 and was seen by more than four million people. By the early twentieth century Americans not only knew what skis were, but the sport had established itself in the New World.

Notes

<1> The contributions of Torjus and Mikkel Hemmestveit as well as other Norwegian Americans to the growth of the sport of skiing will be left to another study.
<2> The Rødøy skier wears rabbit ears so as to resemble his prey more closely. He carries a combination ski pole-ax, and displays good form with slightly bent knees. One scholar has interpreted the hunter as being in a boat rather than on skis, but this is highly unlikely. The rock carving was discovered by Gutorm Gjessing and first reproduced in the evening edition of Aftenposten on October 13, 1933. See also Gutorm Gjessing, Nordenfjelske ristninger og malinger (Oslo, 1936). For a more detailed description of the Hoting ski see Gösta Berg et al, Finds of Skis of’ Prehistoric Times in Swedish Bogs and Marshes (Stockholm, 1950).
<3> For additional information on reindeer migrations see László Vajda, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Hirtenkulturen (Wiesbaden, 1968).
<4> This theory is overly simplistic but essentially correct. See also Daniel Sutherland Davidson, Snowshoes (Philadelphia, 1937).
<5> Gutorm Gjessing, Circumpolar Stone Age, vol. 2 of Acta Arctica (Copenhagen, 1944).
<6> Snowshoes were generally used for chores close to home, while skis were superior for long-distance travel, running trap lines, etc. See Berg et al, Finds of Skis of Prehistoric Times.
<7> Ingrid Gaustad Semmingsen, "Norwegian Emigration to America during the Nineteenth Century,” in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 11 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1940), 66-81. Francis Sejersted, Den vanskelige frihet 1814-1851, vol. 10 of Norges historie, ed. by Knut Mykland (Oslo, 1978), 102-105.
<8> Sejersted, Den vanskelige frihet, 121-122.
<9> Torjus Loupedalen, Morgedal skisportens vogge (Oslo, 1947), 61.
<10> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 88.
<11> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 45.
<12> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 88.
<13> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 87-88. Presumably an “old maid” was a particularly bad or embarrassing fall.
<14> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 30.
<15> Knut Liestøl and Moltke Moe, Folkeviser I (3rd ed., ed. by Olav Bø and Svale Solheim), vol. 6 of Folkedikting (Oslo, 1967), 93-97, 27 1-273.
<16> Jakob Vaage, Norske skiløpere, 6 (Oslo, 1969), 8.
<17> For details of the military use of skiing see Oskar Wergeland, Skiløbning - en, (lens historic og krigsanvendelse, (Kristiania, 1865), 479-480.
<18> Most of the material on Sondre Norheim comes from Pastor Aslak Bergland’s collection of ballads and poems called Lauvduskar, which appeared in 1887, and from Lonpedalen, Morgedal. See also Vaage, Norske Skiløpere, 272-292, and Olav Bø, Skiing Tradition in Norway (Oslo, 1968), :39-63.
<19> Ivar Aasen, Norsk ordhog (Kristiania, 1850), 430.
<20> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 69.
<21> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 79.
<22> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 76-77. Literal translation by the author.
<23> Aftenbladet (Christiania), February 10, 1868.
<24> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 99.
<25> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 46.
<26> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 86.
<26a> Loupedalen, Morgedal
<27> Loupedalen, Morgedal, 127.
<28> Kenneth Bjork, “‘Snowshoe’ Thompson: Fact and Legend.” in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 19 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1956), 62-88.

 

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