The Norwegian Quakers of Marshall County,
By H.F. Swansen (Volume X: Page 127)
Iowa holds an important place in the history of the Norwegian-American Quakers, for a large number of the adherents of that religious society located within its boundaries. The first of these Friends who came to the Hawkeye State settled in Lee County, in the southeastern corner of the state. Here in the well known Sugar Creek community, Ommund Olson in 1842 built a meetinghouse, which, according to one authority, was the first house of worship erected by Norse Friends in America.
Norwegian Quakers also moved into other parts of Iowa; Henry, Mahaska, and Benton counties, for example. While these movements are interesting and important in tracing the spread of Norse settlements in the state, the meetings or congregations with which these immigrants affiliated were not Norwegian speaking. Besides, the number of Norwegians in these counties was small. The settlement in Marshall County, however, is significant as well as unique, for it became the largest center of Norwegian Quakerism in the United States. Furthermore, the meeting established there was Norwegian speaking.
The first Norse Friend to take up his abode in Marshall County was Søren Oleson, who settled near the town of Le Grand in 1858. This sturdy immigrant was a native of Stavanger, Norway, the center of Quakerism in that country and the city from which the first Norwegian emigrants of the nineteenth century embarked. Weary of the persecution to which he was subjected on account of his refusal to bear arms, he emigrated in the fall of 1854, when he was
twenty-seven years of age. He tarried .at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, until the spring of 1855, when he set out for the Sugar Creek settlement in Lee County, Iowa, where several Norwegian Quakers had already established homes. During the same year Oleson moved to the Friends community at Salem in Henry County, which adjoined Lee to the northwest. Here on September 22, 1858, he married Anna C. Ravnaas. As members of the Salem Meeting of Friends, the Olesons made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas McCool, who owned a farm near Le Grand in Marshall County. Since Mrs. McCool was a minister in the Society of Friends, she and her husband traveled extensively. Unable to give personal attention to the many duties of his farm, McCool engaged Oleson for the work. Thus in 1858 Søren Oleson and his wife migrated to Marshall County and they lived on the McCool farm for several years. Oleson then moved to a piece of land which he had previously purchased and made this his home. This was near Quarry, a community not far from Le Grand.
Finding the soil fertile and the climate congenial, the Olesons soon wrote to friends about their attractive new home. In 1859 an old neighbor, Thore Heggem, came direct from Norway with his family and settled south of Le Grand. Before leaving his native land Heggem had been a member of the Stavanger Meeting of Friends. Two years later Christian Gimre with his family moved to Marshall County after a residence of several years at Primrose, Wisconsin. As a young man Gimre had worked in the city of Stavanger, Norway. In 1864 Mathias Huseboe and family, accompanied by several young people, settled in the neighborhood, and in the following year Tønnes K. Stangeland did likewise. Both the Huseboe group and Stangeland came from the Stavanger region of Norway where they had been active in Quaker circles. During the ten or twelve years after the arrival of Søren Oleson, a large number of Norwegians arrived,
some from Illinois and Wisconsin, but the majority directly from Norway. The settlement was appropriately called Stavanger for the district in Norway from which most of its members originally came. It should not be confused with an older Stavanger settlement near Ossian in Winneshiek County, Iowa.
A substantial addition was made to the community in 1869 when a company of about fifty Norwegian immigrants descended upon Le Grand. This group movement was the result of the efforts of a Quaker minister of Iowa, Lindley Murray Hoag, who in 1853 conceived the idea of making a tour of observation among the Friends of Norway. In meditating upon the journey and the prospect of doing something worth while, he envisioned a beautiful place in Norway that he desired to visit, but he had no definite idea of its name or location. In response to these inner promptings Hoag forthwith made the long journey to Norway where several Friends, among them an interpreter, accompanied him on missionary visits in and around Stavanger. After he had made the rounds and had been kindly received on all sides, he was discouraged and dissatisfied with the results. Fearing that his mission had been a failure, he conferred with his interpreter in regard to further missionary ventures. The latter had no suggestions to offer. Hoag then suddenly decided to visit the valley of Roldal, a scenic region not far from Stavanger. Here he found an isolated group of pious folk who were strangers to the Quaker teachings but who responded eagerly to his message. He went into raptures over the beautiful Roldal valley which lay before him in the golden splendor of the northern sun, the very scene that he had pictured in his mind months earlier in his American home.
Shortly after this eventful experience these people built a meetinghouse and joined the Society of Friends at Stavanger. In spite of hardships and tribulations, they plodded on for
several years and, in the meantime, won a considerable number of new members. They experienced persecution, however, at the hands of Norwegian officialdom, for, as Quakers, they declined to support the state church and refused to bear arms. Rather than submit to what, in their opinion, was wrong, they decided to emigrate to Iowa where people could worship as conscience dictated and where they would be free "to serve God in true love."
In 1869 nearly fifty persons took leave of Stavanger. Their arrival at Le Grand some weeks later provoked considerable enthusiasm in the settlement.
The Norwegians, during their first years in the community, worshiped at the Monthly Meeting of Friends at Le Grand, but, since they experienced difficulty on account of their unfamiliarity with the English language, they requested the privilege of holding a meeting in their native tongue. The request was granted and in 1864 a meeting was set up at Stavanger under the care of the Le Grand Monthly Meeting. This was organized as a "Preparative Meeting," the first stage of congregational organization in the Quaker church.
From the beginning the meetings were held in private homes or in the neighborhood schoolhouse, but in 1870 or thereabouts an old building was purchased. This was replaced in 1886 with a new structure, the exterior and interior of which conformed to the traditional Quaker simplicity. The erection of this house of worship was indicative of improved circumstances in the settlement.
The Stavanger Meeting, when founded, had few members, but it grew in numbers over a space of years. Although small, it included among its supporters many promising young men and women. The membership roll took a
definite turn upwards in 1869, when a majority of the Roldal company joined the meeting. In 1868 the membership totaled 45; in 1874, 107; in 1884, 121; and at present (1938) it is 97. The largest number affiliating at any one time was around 1890, when 222 were enrolled.
Of the four men who served as ministers, three were born and reared in Norway. A considerable part of the history of the meeting revolves around the life and work of these men, Thore Heggem, Tønnes K. Stangeland, and John Knudson.
Heggem, who prior to his emigration had been a minister in the parent meeting, was the first. Stangeland, before leaving his native land, had served as minister in the Stavanger Meeting of Friends. In Marshall County he sat at the head of his Quaker countrymen until his death in 1888. Knudson, born at Skjold, a community near Stavanger, came to the United States in 1857 at the age of twenty, settled in Illinois and later in Henry and Mahaska counties, Iowa. He moved to Marshall County in 1890 and was the leader of the Stavanger group from 1891 to 1911. The fourth minister, William Test, who served the meeting for a short period, was not of Norwegian extraction. Whenever the meeting has had no minister, as has happened at times (at the very present in fact), an elder has been appointed to assume leadership.
As has been mentioned, the Stavanger Meeting was the only one in the United States which was Norwegian speaking. As late as 1880 all the meetings, those for worship as well as those for discipline, were conducted in the Norwegian language. During the 1880's and 1890's the English language was used more and more, until in recent times it has almost completely supplanted the Norwegian. Instruction in Norwegian for the children was left to the home. Thus the meeting did little in a formal way to perpetuate the use of the Norwegian language among the youth.
In the early years of the settlement these immigrants associated with American Friends of liberal leanings and this led to affiliation with the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, an organization that attempted to adjust religious thought and practice to modern conditions. Conservative by nature and foreign by birth, they took exception to new teachings and liberal trends. In 1871, for example, they protested against the apportionment method of raising money because it clashed with the voluntary plan to which they were accustomed. The discontent grew and in 1885 led to a separation from the orthodox body and a union with the Iowa Yearly Meeting of (conservative) Friends. At this time, it is worth noting, the Yearly Meeting (orthodox) was contemplating official sanction of the movement for a paid ministry, a sanction which the Norwegians opposed. On the whole the immigrants were staunchly devoted to the principles and practices of the founders of the society. It is interesting to note that at the time of the separation, the local meeting reorganized under the name of Stavanger Monthly Meeting of Friends.
The largest and probably the most interesting venture supported by the meeting was the Stavanger Boarding School. In 1888 these Friends submitted their plans for the proposed school to the Iowa Yearly Meeting, which at once took favorable action. Since the meetings or congregations affiliating with the Yearly Meeting were widely scattered, it was decided to provide board and room for students not residing near by. Thus the school was not intended as a purely local enterprise. By the fall of 1891 a two-acre tract had been purchased and on this a two-story frame building with a stone basement had been erected. Besides rooms for instructional purposes, it contained the usual facilities for the boarding school plan. The approximate cost of the project was $2,750, almost all of which was raised by subscription.
The founders of the institution aimed to offer "a religiously guarded education" and "to foster a closer relationship between the school and the home and the religious body to which it belongs."
The course of instruction, however, was partly on the elementary level, partly on the secondary. Arithmetic, geography, and English were among the offerings in the two-year preparatory department. Algebra, geometry, physics, botany, American literature, rhetoric, general history, and political economy were among the courses offered in the four-year higher department.
School work opened in the fall of 1891 with one teacher and a matron in charge. The teaching staff usually consisted of two members, however. The enrollment of students for 1892-93 was 50 and for 1893-94, 41. While enrollment was never very large, it probably ranged from 40 to 50 during the most prosperous years. Conspicuous among the school activities was the student paper, the Stavanger Mirror, which was first published during 1893-94.
The rules of discipline were in conformity with the teachings and practices of the Quaker organization, more particularly those of the conservative wing. In order to indicate the nature of the regulations, three of those effective in 1910-11, and probably effective during the whole history of the school, are quoted.
It will be expected that the pupils use the English language in their general intercourse among themselves and others, and in the use of language it is requested that the correct form [thou and thee] in regard to which Friends bear a testimony and which is set forth in the Holy Scripture [be used].
Students are respectfully requested to dispense with such apparel, jewelry and fashionable customs inconsistent with true simplicity which the committee superintendent and matron shall indicate.
Tobacco in any form, chewing gum, musical instruments and firearms are strictly forbidden, and any reading matter found in the possession of the pupils or anything being practiced which the committee or care takers consider objectionable are to be removed.
With the spread of high schools in this section of Iowa and with the removal of many loyal supporters, the school in time encountered grave difficulties. Thus in 1910-11, for example, the attendance fell to 21, therefore the question of continuance was given serious consideration. The boarding feature was dropped in 1911-12, but the day school was continued for three years.
Today the Norwegian Quaker settlement of Marshall County is largely a matter of history. As the forces of assimilation have quietly yet effectively been at work and as the founders have disappeared from the scene, it has lost much of its distinctive color. Nevertheless there is still much of interest about the region. The quaint meetinghouse, the site of the recently razed Stavanger Boarding School, and here and there the home of an aged Friend --- these may be seen today. While these reminders belong in large measure to the past, they suggest an enterprise that was intimately related to the small yet significant meeting of Friends in Stavanger, Norway. The devotion of these Norsemen to the ideals and principles of the parent meeting is also impressive. The story of the settlement and meeting will always constitute a fascinating chapter in the history of the Norwegian element in the United States.
<1> John F. Hansen, Light and Shade from the Land of the Midnight Sun, 71 (Oskaloosa, Iowa, 1903).
<2> A detailed account of this visit to Norway was written by John Mareussen, a Danish Quaker, in an article entitled "A Remarkable Chapter in the History of Friends," in Friend's Intelligencer, 64: 548, 549, 563-565 (1907). The same account appears in the Le Grand Reporter (Le Grand, Iowa), January 12, 1923, p. 1, while a Norwegian version may be found in Decorah-posten (Decorah, Iowa), November 7, 1924, p. 6.
<3> This information was furnished by Malinda C. Thompson and Ole C. Stangeland, both still active members of the Stavanger Meeting.
<4> Much of the information relating to the school was taken from issues of the Stavanger Mirror. Several numbers of this publication are among the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.
<5> Louis T. Jones, The Quakers of Iowa, 287 (Iowa City, 1914).