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Two Museum Houses: A Microanalysis of Cultural Adaptation
    by Reidar Bakken. translated by C. A. Clausen(Volume 32: Page 119

The Norwegian Emigrant Museum was established in Oslo in 1952 on the initiative of the Norsemen’s Federation (Nordmanns-Forbundet). In 1973 the museum was moved to Hamar, which is centrally located for the two great emigration counties (fylker) of Oppland and Hedmark. The greater part of the museum consists of archives and microfilm copies of important source material, especially from the United States, but it also has a collection of objects and several buildings from the upper Midwest. The museum is being expanded as regards both collection and staff and in 1988 was given the official name of The Norwegian Emigrant Museum (Norsk Utvandrermuseum).

In this article attention will be focused on the two dwelling houses which are located in the open-air division of the museum. The first house acquired by the Emigrant Museum was built in the year 1871 at Norman, North Dakota, by Per Bårderud from Grue, Solør. This dwelling has become accepted by people in Norway as the standard Norwegian-American house. (Figures 1a and b). At Grue the house is still standing which the Bårderud family left in 1870. It is being maintained by the Gruetun Museum at Kirkenær. By a trip of an hour and a half between Kirkenær and Hamar one can thus follow an emigrant family from the home milieu in the old country to their new life in America (Figure 2).

Figure 1a

Fig. 1a. Borderud house at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. The house was built in Norman, North Dakota, in 1871, by Peder Borderud from Grue in Solør. Courtesy Hedmark Museum.

Figure 1b

Fig. 1b. Scale drawing of Borderud house by Are Vesterlid.

figure 2

Fig. 2. The main building on the Bårderud farm in Grue. The house was probably built toward the end of the eighteenth century. Photograph by Birger Nesholen.

The other building is usually called the Gunderson house in honor of the man who built it, the cotter Knut Gunderson from Krødsherad in Buskerud (Figure 3). The house was erected near Vining, Otter Tail county, Minnesota, and the documents which came with the house to Norway state that it was built in 1883. {1} This date has been repeated in later historical literature. {2} The facts of Knut Gunderson’s career, however, suggest that this dating must be revised. In Krødsherad the cotter’s dwelling which the Gunderson family left is also preserved (Figure 4). It is in a very bad state of repair; but, with the aid of the Emigrant Museum, work is in progress to assure its future. Thus, here also is an opportunity to compare an emigrant’s way of life in Norway and in America.

figure 3

Fig. 3. The Gunderson house at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. The house was built near Vining, Minnesota, by Knut Gunderson from Krødsherad, probably in 1888. Courtesy Hedmark Museum.

figure 4

Fig. 4. Cotter’s hut on Andresonbakken, on the Bjøre farm in Krødsherad. Photograph by Reidar Bakken.

For the Emigrant Museum the most important question is: what happened to Norwegian emigrants, culturally speaking, in their new homeland? The emigrants carried Norwegian folk culture to a foreign land; and the development of a Norwegian-American folk culture forms a part of Norwegian cultural history which the Museum desires to document, investigate, and make known. What can these two houses tell about this subject?

It is the dissimilarities between the Norwegian and the American houses which immediately attract attention. Were so few Norwegian traditions carried along to America? Or are the American houses possibly more Norwegian than at first glance they appear to be? Here is a debate which has long occupied American architecture students.


In considering American log houses (laftehus) and their relationship to building customs in Europe, one has to deal with two contradictory theories. C. A. Weslager, who has undertaken detailed studies of American log houses during the pioneer era, maintains that during the post-pioneer period it is absolutely impossible to designate a log house in national terms. He argues that the log houses underwent a development in America which turned them into distinctive American cultural products, even though they had European roots. {3} He further maintains that it is not possible to select specific elements and say, for example, that this is Swedish, or this is Finnish. {4} Weslager thus represents what may be termed the Americanization theory. The heart of this theory is the concept that the log houses through the centuries in America became Americanized and that it is impossible to speak about specific ethnic elements in connection with them. This means that the immigrants who built their pioneer homes chose an American form without paying any attention to old-country traditions. Thus, judged by their early houses in America, the immigrants were quickly Americanized.

Marion Nelson, director of Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum, in Decorah, Iowa, represents the other theory. Nelson examines the most common type of house among Norwegian Americans during the period 1836—1876, a period when nearly 200,000 Norwegians emigrated to America. An example of this type of house is the Egge house from Decorah, now at Vesterheim. This house was built in 1852 by Erik Egge from Hadeland (Figure 5). It measures a story and a half and the logs are dovetailed. The roof is covered with shingles and is somewhat steeper than, for example, the Norwegian sod roofs. The entry door is placed on the longitudinal wall and has an adjoining window. Houses of this type are whitewashed or sided. Nelson points out that it was earlier believed, because of its deviation from Norwegian styles, that this type of house was developed under American influence. A study of nineteenth-century cotters’ and laborers’ houses in Norway indicates, nevertheless, that the type could have been brought to America by Norwegian immigrants. {5} It is only the use of whitewashing to draw humidity out of the timbers that has, as far as is known, no parallel in Norway. {6} With these ideas Nelson represents what may be called the tradition theory.

figure 5

Fig. 5. The Egge house, near Decorah, Iowa, now at Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum. The house was built in 1852 by Erik Egge from Hadeland. Drawing by Dana Jackson.

With these two theories as background the two houses at the Emigrant Museum can be examined more closely. It is obvious that neither Per Bårderud nor Knut Gunderson tried to recreate their houses from the old country; the differences are too great. The question then arises: do the houses fit into the general American log-house tradition which extends back to the seventeenth century, or do they represent a unique Norwegian-American tradition? Or did the builders have in mind houses occupied by the lower classes in their home communities when they built their own homes in the New World? The question may also arise whether they depended on their own ingenuity, in which case these houses become, in reality, a sort of curiosity.


Per Bårderud was a farmer on Bårderud, a middle-sized farm in Grue, Solør. He was born in 1818, and as the eldest son took over the farm in 1846. The farm had thirty-eight acres under cultivation and a smaller area of forest land. Per Bårderud was married to Johanne Gundersdatter Aarnes from Brandval and they had six children: Mathilde, Arne, Ole, Torbjørn, Tea, and Gustava. Family tradition in America has it that the oldest son wanted to emigrate and all of them left together in 1870 so as not to break up the family. {7} In Grue it is rather held that economic causes motivated the emigration. The fact that the new owner of Bårderud immediately had to make a lot of improvements in the buildings may also indicate that Per Bårderud’s economic condition was not of the best. {8} The sale of the farm, however, provided a fine surplus which the family took along to America.

Per had been a farmer for twenty-four years and was fifty-two years old when he sold the farm and emigrated. Johanne was forty-eight and the six children ranged in age from seven to twenty-two. The family spent the first year in St. Ansgar, Iowa, while Per searched for land where they might settle down. This he found in the Red River valley in Dakota Territory. The place was called Norman and was located about twenty-five miles south of the present city of Fargo, North Dakota. Here Per Bårderud became a farmer and took the name Peder Borderud. The Borderud farm was about four times as large as Bårderud in Grue. {9} The Borderud dwelling was completed by the fall of 1871, and Peder and Johanne are said to have lived there the rest of their lives. Peder died in 1890, Johanne in 1894. The son Torbjørn took over the farm and built a new house in 1899. {10}

The older house was not used just as a dwelling place. The first religious service in the settlement was held there on May 8, 1872, and two days later a preliminary congregational meeting organized the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church at the Sheyenne River, Dakota Territory. In 1912 the name was changed to Norman Congregation. Pastor J. A. Hellestvedt came to it as the first minister in 1873, and he lived with the Borderud family for many years. For a long time most church affairs were carried on in this dwelling — a church was not built until 1889. {11} Besides serving as the site for religious functions, the house was also the local post office. The son Arne was postmaster, a position he held until 1880. Furthermore, the building was also a clearing house where Peder Borderud gave counsel and advice to new immigrants. The county board held its meetings in the Borderud home, and reportedly it even doubled as a schoolhouse.

Thus the Borderud house served a number of public functions. That a building of such modest dimensions was utilized for so many different purposes tells a great deal about the pioneer settlement on the shores of the Sheyenne River. It gives a picture of a community which was being established. No institutions or offices were there ready-made — everything had to be built from the ground up. The form of life which people were acquainted with from the old country could not automatically be maintained under the new circumstances.

That the Borderud house was put to such varied uses may have been due to several circumstances. It can be assumed that Peder Borderud held a special status, economic and social, in the pioneer community because he had been a farm owner in Norway. The social position of the family would certainly have contributed toward making the Borderud home a gathering place. Besides, Peder Borderud was one of the first settlers in Norman. But equally important, the house was one of the most spacious in the community.

When Torbjørn Borderud built a new house at the turn of the century, the old house was moved to the Perhus farm near Kindred. Here it also served as a dwelling house for many years. Later, the Sons of Norway lodge in Kindred assumed possession of the house, which was moved still another time and now served as their clubhouse and also as a small pioneer museum. It attracted many visitors until the lodge was dissolved and the museum objects were moved to a building in Kindred. The building stood abandoned when the Norsemen’s Federation took the initiative in 1955 to move it to the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo, where it remained until 1973, when it was removed to Hamar. {12}

Besides its manifold functions, the house has thus experienced a vagrant existence. It was reconstructed twice in America and twice in Norway. These are facts which must be taken into consideration when studying the house, as the two dissimilar restorations are inadequately documented. A photograph from the 1880s purports to show the Borderud house with an addition and a verandah in front. But in order to make the window opening fit, the picture must be seen as a mirror image (Figure 6). Furthermore, it is unlikely that the addition would have been placed in front of one of the windows. The picture must therefore be of another house. A later picture shows the house the way it appeared while on the Perhus farm. At that time it had no addition (Figure 7). At the Emigrant Museum the house has been given the appearance it must have had at the very earliest period. And it is this period which is of interest here.

figure 6

Fig. 6. The photograph supposedly shows the Borderud house in the 1880s. If this is the case, it must be a mirror image. Courtesy Hedmark Museum.

figure 7

Fig. 7. Borderud house on the Perhus farm, with Olaf Stengrim Perhus. Courtesy Hedmark Museum.


Knut Gunderson, who built the second house, was born in Krødsherad, March 26, 1863. His parents were Gunder and Berit Torgerson, and the family was referred to in the community as folket på bakken, that is, the people on the hill. The whole family emigrated to America, though at different times. Knut left in 1882 on a prepaid ticket sent by a farmer in Beloit, Wisconsin, who was engaged in milk production. Knut had to work a year for the ticket, which is said to have cost $40. {13} The parents emigrated in 1885 and went directly to Folden township near Vining, where they settled on eighty acres of uncultivated ground. {14} Knut is not listed in the Folden township census of 1885, though in the census of 1895 he states that he has been in Minnesota for ten years and eight months. Seven of these years he had spent in Folden. This agrees with information in the family history, which states that he first stayed in Wisconsin for two years. {15} These facts are likely based on information from Mason’s history of Otter Tail county. {16} The family further believes that Knut, after the stay in Wisconsin, worked for his half-brother, whose family name was Lillemoen, in Austin, Minnesota. {17}

According to this, Knut Gunderson should first have come to Minnesota in 1884, after his two years in Wisconsin. The following year his parents settled in Folden. But Knut did not live there, as some people have maintained. {18} He did not come to Folden until 1888 — the same year he married Maria Rakstad. Maria was then sixteen years old and lived with her parents in Folden. She was born in Filmore county, Minnesota, of Norwegian parents. {19} Considering these facts it seems quite unlikely that the house was built in 1883. Rather it must have been built in 1888 when Knut Gunderson married and settled on 160 acres of railroad land in Folden. Many years passed, however, before he secured a deed to the land. This did not happen until 1902. {20}

Knut and Maria had eleven children, of whom nine lived to maturity. {21} Information about the construction of buildings on the farm comes mainly from personal reports. The family states that a new dwelling house was built in 1894. At first there was only a log cowbarn besides the house. A granary was built in 1909. {22} During the period prior to 1909 the old house — the Emigrant Museum house — was used as a granary. It was then moved to a new plot. After 1909 the house was again dismantled and moved — now to serve as a summer kitchen for Maria and Knut. It is said that they were very happy to use it in that way — reportedly, it was very comfortable there. The house served that function through the year 1937. Knut Gunderson died on April 2, 1938. In rough outline the chronology of the house thus becomes as follows:

1888, presumably built
1888-1894, dwelling place for Knut and Maria and their children, up to then four, the youngest born in 1894
1894-1909, used as granary
1909-1937, used as summer kitchen
1962, given to the museum by Wayne Gunderson
1975, rebuilt at Domkirkeodden, the location of the Hamar Museum.

The historical facts can only partially be confirmed through written sources such as real-estate tax lists. The tax for buildings on the farm increased from $12 in 1894 to $20 in 1896. This increase was probably due to the new dwelling house in 1894. In 1900 the tax dropped to $12, while by 1902 it had risen to $15. But between 1902 and 1906 it jumped to $120. It is clear from these figures that Knut Gunderson avoided major improvements until he received the deed in 1902. {23}


When the Borderud family moved to Norman in the spring of 1871, they came to the frontier, the boundary line for permanent settlement, which was progressing steadily westward across the continent. But the family had earlier stayed almost a year in more established surroundings, in Iowa. Together with other Norwegians Peder Borderud had roamed widely in Iowa and neighboring states looking for land. {24} When the question is raised as to which building tradition the Borderud house is to be placed in, the question also arises which traditions Borderud was acquainted with. During the course of his first year in America he must have become acquainted with the various solutions found in this country, both during the pioneer stage and in later periods. He would therefore have been in a position to make an informed choice.

The Vining area was certainly somewhat more established when Knut Gunderson built his house there in 1888, even though he also had to start as a new settler. He had been in America longer than Peder Borderud. He must therefore have been well acquainted with the various methods of building a pioneer home. The area around Vining was well supplied with woods, so the material was easily available for the construction of log houses.

Where woods were found in the new settlements it was usual, during the pioneering period, to build a log house with one room, a so-called "log cabin." This is found in many variations, from the most primitive huts to more carefully constructed houses. For a long time Americans were of the opinion that these cabins originated with pioneer settlers in the forests along the East Coast. In 1931, however, Harold R. Shurtlieff disposed of this idea in his book, The Log Cabin Myth. But Shurtlieff replaced the earlier myth with a new one. He held that the log-house technique in America spread as a direct result of Swedish immigration to Delaware — Nya Sverige, "New Sweden" — in the seventeenth century. More recent research proves that this hypothesis as well must be modified considerably. It is, to be sure, correct that the Swedes, when they settled in Delaware after 1638, were the first to use the log-house technique in America. But, as Weslager points out, almost fifty percent of the "Swedes" in New Sweden were Finns, who also knew how to build log houses {25} There were, furthermore, German population groups nearby, especially in Pennsylvania, who also had loghouse traditions from their homeland, and they were far more numerous than the Swedes and the Finns. It is assumed today that it was mainly the Germans who further developed the log-house technique on the American continent. The status of research in this field is best summarized by Fred Kniffen and Henry Glassie, who draw the conclusion that the log-house technique, which came to characterize the American frontier, was not an American adaptation to the surroundings; neither was it introduced by Scandinavians, but by Germans in Pennsylvania. It was spread by them, and by a Scotch-Irish group, in all directions from southeastern Pennsylvania. {26} The Scotch-Irish had no log-house tradition from the homeland, but must have learned from the Germans. Kniffen and Glassie have identified a direct transfer of certain traits of Finno-Scandinavian origin to parts of the Midwest, but this took place during the nineteenth century and had no importance in the development and distribution of the American "log cabin" (Figure 8).

figure 8

Fig. 8. Overview of the spread of various methods of log construction and their frequency in the United States. The Finno-Scandinavian eastern influence is found around Lake Superior. The overview is based on about 1,000 examples. Map from Kniffen and Glassie, "Building in Wood," 60.

The fact that the log-house technique thus has a Central European origin explains some of the characteristics connected with the construction of the log cabin. A main line of separation in the European log-house technique is drawn between the Nordic and the east-central areas of Europe. In Nordic log houses the logs are fitted longitudinally by a so-called meddrag, a groove cut into the timbers to hold the logs tightly together. In the rest of the European log-house regions this meddrag is lacking and the spaces between the logs are caulked with various types of material. Warren Robert points out that practically all American log houses have a space between the logs, often several inches wide. {27} This characteristic element is construed by many as a proof of the Central European origin of the American log-house technique. But a few also argue that these spaces may have been simply an adaptation to the local situation in regions where there were no supplies of the straight-growing spruce and pine so common in the Scandinavian countries. Claire Selkurt, for example, accounts for the poor workmanship found in a certain Norwegian-American region, Luther Valley in Wisconsin, on this basis. {28} For Marion Nelson this is the main explanation of the absence of meddrag in Norwegian-American log houses. {29} Crooked timber made the use of meddrag difficult. When examples of this technique are found, they are an exception to the rule, even in areas where straight-growing timber was available.

Another characteristic element connected with the American log houses is noteworthy, namely the extensive use of different types of dovetailing. There has been some uncertainty among scholars concerning the age of this technique in Scandinavia, but it can be said with full assurance that dovetailing was not usually known or used there until long after the American log cabin was fully developed. Hence dovetailing is presumably also an element borrowed from the Central European log house.

When the Borderud house is considered in relation to these characteristic elements, it is clear, first of all, that the meddrag is missing. As already pointed out, this is no doubt due to the lack of suitable material. Peder Borderud’s building material consisted of hard and somewhat crooked oak trees. But the logs are hewn flat inside the house and partly also outside. Borderud evidently chose the toilsome flat-hewing of the timber in preference to the traditional Nordic meddrag. The Borderud house has dovetailing of a type called "half dovetail." Borderud was a carpenter and it is reasonable to assume that he performed the work himself. He was undoubtedly acquainted with dovetailing from his carpentry work and this style of log construction was also known in Solør when he emigrated. The fact that he used it may therefore have its origin in Norway. But at the same time it falls within the framework of the general log-house tradition, where dovetailing had a higher status than joints with projecting ends (laft med hoder).

The materials in the Gunderson house are also oak logs, though smaller and straighter; but there are no traces of meddrag here either. The Gunderson house is built with extended log-ends. This is a feature which can be conceived as a traditional Norwegian element. This way of building had a high status in Norway and was not unusual in dwelling houses even as late as the 1880s. But the log-ends in the Gunderson house are of a shape rarely found in Norway. They have clear traces of a special type of V-notch which is tear-shaped. Here the American influence is clear (Figure 9).

figure 9

Fig. 9. Projecting log-ends at the Gunderson house. The tear-shaped ends are an American element. Courtesy Hedmark Museum.

The same is true of the windows. Both houses have double-hung sash windows of American type, with small panes in the Gunderson house and large panes in the Borderud house. But both windows and doors were bought readymade and hinged windows were not often available. The same goes for the use of American shingles. Other roofing methods were certainly tried by Norwegian pioneers, but they worked poorly (Figure 10). Cedar shingles were practical and easily obtainable. That the houses are whitewashed both inside and out is in accordance with American tradition, while this method is unknown in Scandinavia on unplastered timber walls.

figure 10

Fig. 10. Parsonage in the Red River Valley. The climate was not suitable for a sod roof. Here it is gradually being replaced by boards. Courtesy Vesterheim.

In summary it can be said that both houses fit into a general American log-house tradition. The question then arises: how do the houses stand in relationship to a Norwegian-American tradition?


Thus far very little research has been done on the distinctiveness of Norwegian-American houses. Norwegian-American houses with meddrag are found only rarely. Whitewashing was general. These are both breaks with Norwegian tradition. What other elements characterize the early Norwegian-American houses?

Curator Darrell D. Henning at Vesterheim has identified two main types of log houses on the basis of studies in northeastern Iowa, a region which was settled by various ethnic groups during the 1840—1860 period. {30} The most common type of log house there was one room with a loft above. On the basis of this type he set up the following survey of features with varying degrees of standardization.

Very standardized:

- one-room ground plan
- facade-entry door slightly off center on the long wall, with a window beside the door
- the stovepipe placed indoors on a shelf, at or near the center of the gable wall
- a finished ceiling and a combined attic and second story

Less standardized:

- placing of the other windows
- placing of the stairs

Little standardized:

- method of joining logs
- other construction details

The survey builds on the degree of variation in the different elements mentioned; a great variation in a certain element shows a small degree of standardization; Henning’s other type of Norwegian-American house has a two-room ground plan, and consequently is not relevant here.

How the logs are put together and other construction details are, according to Henning, little standardized. Hence there are grounds for saying that in this field there are no firm Norwegian-American traditions. Most common in Henning’s findings is "full dovetail," but no statistical information is presented on which to build. This type and "half dovetail" are also common among other ethnic groups. Dovetailing on the Borderud house may just as well be an American as a Norwegian-American element. But it may also, as already mentioned, be of Norwegian origin. The saddle-notching on Gunderson’s house may be both Norwegian and American, but the shape of the ends of the logs has, undoubtedly, an American source.

Nor can the less standardized features give any certain basis for placing the houses in a particular building tradition. But here the possible variations are more limited. Even though the placing of the windows varies, it is normal to have two windows in addition to the window by the door. One window is then frequently placed directly across from the door, on the opposite wall, and another on the gable wall. In the Borderud house, the first of these extra windows is not found, but there is a window on the gable wall. Hence the house is atypical as regards the placing of windows. The Gunderson house has the window directly across from the door, but lacks a window on the gable wall. Thus this house is also atypical. The stairs can be placed in the corner, either to the right or the left of the entry door — most often to the left. The Borderud house has the stairs in the right corner on the inner wall, and thus deviates also in this respect from the customary. The Gunderson house, however, follows the norm here. The stairway — or the ladder in this case — is placed to the left of the door.

It is, nevertheless, by considering the most strongly standardized elements that one can best decide whether a house falls within one definite tradition. These elements grant the least leeway for variation. As regards the Norwegian-American one-room house, the facade, the placing of the chimney, and the utilization of the loft are very standardized. The fact that the loft is utilized gives this type of house its characteristic proportions, with great height in relation to the width. The loft is used in the Borderud house, and the house is so large that the second story has been divided into two rooms. The roofs are steep on both of the houses; in the little Gunderson house there is only room to sit in the upper story, but even so it was used as sleeping space.

The chimney is usually placed in or near the apex of the roof on the gable wall, in compliance with Norwegian-American custom. This is true in the Borderud house, but there are traces in the ceiling that suggest the chimney has been moved several times. In the Gunderson house the chimney was placed in the apex of the roof, in accord with the Norwegian-American standard. The facade would normally have the entry door a little off-center of the longitudinal wall with a window near the center of the wall beside the door. The facade was thus given an asymmetrical shape. The Gunderson house has this characteristic facade arrangement (Figure 11), like the earlier-mentioned Egge house in Decorah (Figure 5). The Borderud house, however, has a symmetrical facade with one window on each side of the door. This arrangement is said to have been more commonly used among the German Americans. {31}

figure 11

Fig. 11. The Gunderson house at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. Scale drawing by Are Vesterlid.

After this what can be said about the relationship of the two houses to the Norwegian-American tradition? One can, in the first place, disregard the elements which are very little standardized and affirm that the placing of the windows, which was a firmer tradition, deviates in both houses. The stairs are placed "wrong" in the Borderud house, but are found in the most common location in the Gunderson house. Most decisive are deviations in details of the facade, which are most strongly standardized. The symmetrical facade makes the Borderud house atypical among Norwegian-American pioneer houses. The moving of the chimney in this house also deviates from the norm. The facade of the Gunderson house, however, is entirely in accord with custom.

The question then arises: where did Borderud find his model when he built his house in Kindred? It appears quite unlikely that it was among the Norwegian Americans. Hence one must look back to Grue in Solør.


The Borderud house in Grue was likely built in the last part of the 1700s. It is a comparatively large two-story log building (Figure 2). Externally the house is still as it was when the family emigrated in 1870, but internally some alterations have been made. The dissimilarities between it and the American house are so obvious that a comparison here would serve little or no purpose.

As Marion Nelson points out, it is in houses from other social groups that parallels with the Norwegian-American houses may eventually be found. They might be sought in a certain type of cotters’ house in the home district of the Borderud family. The reason for looking in this direction is the size and also certain similarities in design between this type and the Borderud house. In these houses the logs are joined only at the four corners, but the placing of the chimney reveals an interior division into two-room or three-room floor plans. In Grue today at least three or four such houses can still be found. Several others have been torn down in recent years. In the archives of the Gruetunet Museum are still more of the same type. The log construction of these houses varies. Some have dovetailing — others have extended log-ends. As a rule the gable is sided and the houses have raftered ceilings. Both these features are found in the Borderud house. Some houses are fitted with an entryway in front of the door, while others have a small Swiss-style verandah. In many cases the entryway leads directly into the main room (Figure 12).

figure 13

Fig. 12 House at Grinder in Solør. Photograph by Birger Nesholen.

One single element, the arrangement of the facade, is the essential feature which sets the Borderud house apart from the usual Norwegian-American houses. Peder Borderud may have gathered impulses from German-American houses, which are said to have had similar facades. But the facades of the small cotter houses in Solør have the same symmetrical organization as the Borderud house. Hence it is possible that this one element from the old country is present in the Borderud house. It is, however, not derived from traditions of his own class, but from a certain type of cotters’ house.


Knut Gunderson, however, belonged to the social stratum from which Peder Borderud possibly gathered impulses for his pioneer house. He should, therefore, still be close to the originals. But his house is not like the one he left behind. The cotter’s house on Andresonbakken in Krødsherad has three rooms, with a somewhat old-fashioned floor-plan (Figure 13), a type of house which has been in use ever since the Middle Ages. The dissimilarities are obvious in a number of respects, including size, ground plan, meddrag, fireplace, and roof construction. It is clear that Knut Gunderson did not try to recreate this house in Minnesota. But when it is seen how closely his pioneer house resembles the usual Norwegian-American immigrant’s house in the upper Midwest, especially with respect to the standardized elements, it is reasonable to regard this house as a typical first house for Norwegian immigrants in this region.

figure 13

Fig. 13. Floor plan of house on Andresonbakken in Krødsherad. Scale drawing by Reidar Bakken.

Knut Gunderson not only came from a different social group than Peder Borderud, he was also considerably younger and hence took a longer time to establish himself in America. For six years he roamed about through Norwegian settlements before he built a house for himself and Maria. His relationship with Norwegian America must therefore have been closer than Peder Borderud’s when the latter — after only a year in America — built his house. Furthermore, it is quite unlikely that a cotter’s son had any strong desire to transfer his home surroundings to America. He had become Norwegian American, just as his house was to be.

It is a paradox that the Borderud parents, who were relatively well-off when they came to America, occupied their log cabin as long as they lived. They had built a roomy house and found it quite adequate. Knut Gunderson and his wife Maria, on the other hand, built a large new log house after living only six years in their first little house (Figure 14). Thus the cotter’s son had a much better house to live in than the oldest generation of the landowning Borderud family.

figure 14

Fig. 14. The new house built in 1894 at the Gunderson farm near Vining, Minnesota.


To return to the two theories, the tradition theory and the Americanization theory, support can be found for both. There are parallels to the Borderud house in the general American log-house tradition; it can be seen as an American cultural product, as the Americanization theory supposes. But the Borderud house diverges in essential points from the Norwegian-American tradition. Of special importance is the divergence in a strongly standardized area, namely the facade. For the facade, parallels can be found in a group of cotters’ houses in the home community of the Borderud family. The model is thus found in Norway, as the tradition theory states, though not where it might be expected. The divergences from Norwegian building styles are, nevertheless, so great that in summary it seems most reasonable to talk about a break with the traditions of the homeland. The question will then again arise how this fact can be explained: how could it develop that Peder Borderud built such an un-Norwegian house after having been in America only a year?

When, in this case, support is present for both the main theories about the origin of the Norwegian-American log house, indications are that neither theory, standing independently, is adequate. Consequently, new factors must be considered. It will thus seem reasonable to look more closely at conditions in the new physical and cultural environment in which the Borderud family found themselves.

The region where the house was built was a typical prairie landscape — flat and treeless as far as the eye could reach. Only along the nearby Sheyenne River were there any woods. But these were woods of a different type than the Norwegian spruce and pine forests. As building material Borderud used hard and rather crooked oak trees. There were no sawmills. The logs had to be hewn into proper shape as well as possible with an axe. Here Nelson’s and Selkurt’s explanation of the absence of the meddrag can be understood. It was impractical to notch such hard and crooked pieces of timber. A break with tradition thus resulted from adaptation to the local supply of timber. The crooked timber, furthermore, made it simpler to utilize the height of a house than to build it out in the longitudinal direction. A one-room house thus got a second story and its unusual proportions by Norwegian standards.

In a pioneer culture such houses were one of the methods of solving the housing problem. Hence the formal elements of the house were also an adaptation to a new culture. Peder Borderud did not build simply in accordance with his own ideas or the traditions of his homeland. He adapted himself to a new environment. The lack of buildings for public functions was a characteristic feature of these new settlements. People had to make use of the possibilities which presented themselves. The spacious Borderud house consequently became church, schoolhouse, and public meeting place.

Most of the one-room houses were considered as temporary dwellings until a larger house could be built. Some American scholars speak of a division between what they call a "pioneer form" and a "folk form." {32} The distinguishing feature of the first category is that the houses are primitive in construction and merely intended to satisfy the basic demands for living space. When conditions in time permitted, houses were built which also satisfied other cultural demands. These became houses of "folk form" — in general, second houses for the pioneers. It is here that one can best detect cultural impulses and choices because they did not come into being as a result of an immediate need.

The Borderud house has several characteristics of houses of the "folk form," even though it was the first house Peder Borderud built. It is relatively large. The carpentry work, the hewing of the logs, and the joining show good workmanship and there are no indications that the men were in a hurry. The long time during which the house was in use also proves that there can be no talk here about makeshift architecture or "pioneer form." In this sense also the house is somewhat atypical, which can be explained by the fact that Borderud was himself a skilled craftsman. He could also afford to hire help.

The Americanization which marks the Borderud house does not necessarily say anything about the assimilation of the family itself. It does tell about the new situation of a farm-owning family in a strange world. This becomes especially clear when the Borderud building in Grue is compared with the Borderud house at the Emigrant Museum.

The Gunderson house also supports both the Americanization and the tradition theories. The extended log-ends are an example of possible transfer of tradition from Norway, while the absence of meddrag is an example of Americanization. But in this house the oak logs were straighter and therefore better suited for meddrag than in the Borderud house. Hence the adaptation must be due more to the cultural than to the physical milieu. The tear-drop-shaped log-ends are also American in form. But the Gunderson house also has prominent Norwegian-American features. The strongly standardized element, the facade, is an important example of this. It may be possible to explain this phenomenon through the time factor. It took time to enter fully into the Norwegian-American world. Knut Gunderson had likely stayed here long enough to achieve this identification. The typical Norwegian-American one-room house would then be a natural first home for this newly-married couple.

In regarding the house as a temporary dwelling place he also followed the practice of many other Norwegian Americans. Thus, the house has features which can be characterized as "pioneer form." For instance, the logs are not flat-hewn but used in their round shape. And the many and varied uses to which the house was put can also be regarded as an element in a flexible and adaptable Norwegian-American folk culture.

Thus, for the Gunderson house, neither the tradition theory nor the Americanization theory can offer an adequate explanation. Considering the few studies which have been made of Norwegian-American houses, it is important not to cling to definite, inflexible theories which aim at explaining every phenomenon. Research is still in its preliminary phase and the limited material available is characterized by many subtle variations. In the meantime it is important that items of cultural value be well cared for on both sides of the Atlantic. This will preserve material for the study and dissemination of the exciting cultural development which Norwegian emigrants went through in a new land.


<1> Pioneer Norwegian Log Cabin located on the Farm of Wayne Gunderson near Vining, Minnesota, U.S.A., illustrated brochure in the archives of the Norwegian Emigrant Museum.

<2> See, for example, Anne-Lise Svendsen, "Utvandrermuseet," in Museumsnytt, 3 (Oslo, 1977).

<3> C. A. Weslager, The Log Cabin in America (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1969), 238—239.

<4> Weslager, The Log Cabin in America, 84.

<5> Unpublished manuscript by Darrell D. Henning, curator, Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, Iowa, 1973.

<6> Marion Nelson, "The Material Culture and Folk Arts of the Norwegians in America," in Ian M. G. Quimby and Scott T. Swank, eds., Perspectives on American Folk Art (New York, 1980), 82—85.

<7> Per Hvamstad, "Pionéren Peder Borderud og hans ‘log cabin’," in Årbok for Glamdalen, 11 (Solør, 1967).

<8> Insurance assessment for Bårderud, in the archives of the Gruetunet Museum, Kirkenær.

<9> Hvamstad, "Pionéren Peder Borderud," 13.

<10> Hvamstad "Pionéren Peder Borderud," 21.

<11> Hvamstad "Pionéren Peder Borderud," 15—16.

<12> Hvamstad "Pionéren Peder Borderud," 15.

<13> Interview with Orvie Gunderson (born 1905) in Vining, Minnesota, September 23, 1982.

<14> John W. Mason, ed., History of Otter Tail County (Indianapolis, 1916), 791.

<15> Familiehistorie i bilder, in the archives of the Norwegian Emigrant Museum.

<16> Mason History of Otter Tail County, 791.

<17> Interview with Orvie Gunderson.

<18> Mason History of Otter Tail County, 791.

<19> Mason, History of Otter Tail County, 792.

<20> "Knut Gunderson gets a warranty deed from Northern Pacific May 21, 1893." Register of deeds, county court house, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. The deed was actually recorded in Norwegian.

<21> Familiehistorie i bilder.

<22> Familiehistorie i bilder and interview with Orvie Gunderson.

<23> Real-estate tax records in County Auditor’s office, Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

<24> Hvamstad, "Pionéren Peder Borderud," 12.

<25> Weslager, The Log Cabin in America, 150.

<26> Fred Kniffen and Henry Glassie, "Building in Wood in the Eastern United States. A Time-Place Perspective," in Geographical Review, 56 (January, 1966), 65.

<27> Warren Roberts, "Folk Architecture," in Richard M. Dorson, ed., Folklore and Folklife (Chicago, 1972), 290.

<28> Claire Selkurt, "The Domestic Architecture and Cabinetry of Luther Valley," in Norwegian-American Studies, 30 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1983), 247—272.

<29> Nelson, "Material Culture and Folk Arts," 83.

<30> Henning, "Log building study," undated paper. Vesterheim.

<31> Henning, interview, October, 1982.

<32> Mark H. Knipping and Richard J. Fapso, "The Anders Ellingsen Kvaale Farm. Early Norwegian Commercial Agriculture ca. 1865," unpublished manuscript, 1978, in Old World Wisconsin, Eagle, Wisconsin, 28—29.


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