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From: Neil A Hofland <>
Subject: Transition - 7 - [207] - [218]
Date: Fri, 19 Mar 1999 07:59:44 +0000


Acknowledgment

Theodore C. Blegen's "Norwegian Migration to America, The American
Transition" is published with the kind permission of the
Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA), St. Olaf College, 1510
St. Olaf Avenue,
Northfield, MN 55057-1097. (email: ) This book is under
copyright and permission has been granted for educational purposes and is
not to be used in any way for any commercial purpose.

[207]
VII. PIONEER FOLKWAYS

GENEROUS HOSPITALITY was characteristic of the Norwegian-American
frontier homes. There were people who liked to be complimented for their
"genuine old Norwegian hospitality," {1} but the spirit was essentially
that of the American frontier. The frontier rule was that no one should
be turned away unfed and unwarmed, and this rule was followed by
immigrants and native Americans alike. Even a house temporarily deserted
might be occupied by strangers upon occasion. Sren Bache in 1839 tells
of coming to a house where he and his companion hoped to secure lodging.
They entered it, found no one at home, and made themselves comfortable.
Presently the American housewife returned to find strangers in her house.
She was surprised, but welcomed them as guests, explaining that she was
not frightened, for she knew "that there had been no Indians in the
vicinity that year." {2} Even the Indians, however, would stalk into a
frontier home in the almost certain expectation that they would be given
food. [208]
Usually the Norwegians had their own social nuclei, for friends and
relatives tended to settle in compact groups, often with the pleasant
bond of dialect among them. Even on the prairie complete isolation was
rare. The first winter in a new settlement was often much like that of
Per Hansa in Giants in the Earth. There might be house-to-house visits
among the women, sometimes walks of miles, with small children trudging
along with them. Organized activities usually waited upon the founding of
a church, but the arrival of a visiting minister on his periodic rounds
meant the assembling of scattered people. Even if the traveling parson
arrived on a weekday, the news of his coming spread rapidly and the
people flocked to some central cabin for a religious service.
Visitors were doubly welcome because ordinarily they brought news of the
outside world from which many of the immigrants felt permanently cut off.
The arrival of a Norwegian newcomer occasioned calls from people
throughout the community who hoped for news of friends and relatives in
the old country; and the arrival of letters from the older settlements or
from Norway was similarly an inducement to community visiting. But the
visitor par excellence was the minister. All homes were open to him and
he was besieged with invitations. Mrs. Koren, in that charming diary of
the 1850's which is one of the treasures of the social historian,
describes the "royal progress" of her husband and herself into Iowa to
the Washington Prairie community where they spent their first American
winter. In Dodgeville, Wisconsin, the Korens expected to stay at a
tavern, "but a Norwegian blacksmith asked us if we would not accompany
him home." They were crowded into a little "cramped and suffocating"
stue, or room, where presently the workman's wife arrived, "amazed to
find company." On another occasion, in Iowa, they were ushered into
"quite a large living room with a big [209] stove in the center of it"
and were greeted by their hosts, who "were overjoyed to have the minister
they had been waiting for so long, actually in their midst." They
"offered us the best the house could afford and were on the whole so
friendly that we soon felt very much at home." The loft in which the
Korens were given a bed also accommodated a mother and three children
recently arrived from Norway. The next evening the hosts served cream
porridge to the distinguished guests. {3}
Not long thereafter Mrs. Koren was meeting her parishioners in the
crowded room of the largest house of the community in which her husband
had just held his first service. "You are most welcome to America," was
one of the customary greetings extended to her. Occasionally someone
would say, "What a beautiful breastpin you have there!" Invited to a
dinner, she found that her hostess eagerly wished her to remain not
merely for the meal but overnight. She was treated with homemade wild
grape wine and fattigmand and then sat down to a table "loaded down with
fried pork, spareribs, sausages, bread and butter, cake, and excellent
coffee." On yet another occasion, in a drab and miserable hut, she fell
into a melancholy mood, but, she says, "my mood didn't last long. The
people were so friendly; they gave us their bed and slept in the loft
themselves." The next day she visited a near-by cabin filled with the
smell of snuff and tobacco. There she found two old women in their native
costumes, one of whom proffered snuff to the minister. {4}
Always the pastor's wife found herself regarded with friendly curiosity.
One woman hoped that Mrs. Koren would allow her to drive her around in
the community on some day when the minister was away. "It would be very
nice if I could show off the minister's wife to them," she said. [210]
One day Mrs. Koren tramped through heavy snow to a neighbor's house,
where she was invited to dinner and treated to melkevelling --- milk
porridge. If the minister's family was thus always welcome in the pioneer
homes, it followed that the parsonage was a social center, a permanent
open house. "Helene had no sooner cleared the table for one group than
she would have to set it again," wrote Mrs. Koren on a winter day in
1854, "so that the entire day the house has been full of the delicious
fragrance of fried pork." {5}
Once, making a Sunday call, Mrs. Koren found a family in the midst of
its devotions: a man "in his rocking chair reading out loud from the
Bible," a young wife with a child in her lap, a grandmother and
great-aunt, "gray hair tucked up under their caps," seated on stools, and
an old man lying on his bed. Occasionally such visiting within the parish
was supplemented by the social pleasure of synodical meetings, to which
wives accompanied the pastors. At one, held in Janesville in the autumn
of 1854, Mrs. Koren recorded an invitation after dinner to Pastor
Unonius' for "coffee in the evening." Once a meal was served in the open,
with the "starry sky as a ceiling," and the ministers joined heartily in
singing old familiar songs. Mrs. Preus recalled that there was a close
fraternal bond among the ministers' families. {6}
Scenes on the Dakota prairies in a later period are reminiscent of those
on the Iowa and Wisconsin frontiers of the 1850's. Mrs. Brandt, crossing
the prairie with her husband, finally came to the one-room house of Mons
Steensland. There the ministerial family was cordially greeted; and in
the one room that night slept the farmer and his wife, a number of
children, Pastor and Mrs. Brandt, and the driver. In the Dakota community
the parsonage was the largest house and so it "served . . . as a
community center for [211]

Picture of A Page From Mrs. Koren's Diary, Christmas Eve, 1853 [From the
original in the possession of the Reverend Paul Koren, Decorah, Iowa.]

[212] the activities of the congregation." The choir met in the living
room, the confirmation class in the kitchen, and bazaars and festivals
were held in "the larger unfinished room upstairs." {7}
The hospitality of established settlers to newcomers was boundless. Lars
Larsen in Rochester kept open house for the immigrant throngs moving
westward, sometimes entertaining fifty or more people at one time. {8}
Even Heg converted his Muskego barn into an immigrant receiving house and
won fame in Norway and in America for his unfailing generosity. {9} Of
Lars Davidson Reque of the Koshkonong settlement, R. B. Anderson writes,
"He has done a great deal for newcomers from Norway. His house in
Deerfield has been a sort of objective point for them. He has taken them
into his home, fed them free of charge, taught them valuable things
regarding American affairs, and sent them forth with hope and cheer to
begin life in the 'new world.' " {10}
Even before churches were organized, the social combined with the
religious instinct to bring about informal community gatherings. The
neighbors, writes Elias H. Narjord, assembled on Sundays for the reading
of books of sermons. A letter of 1857 reveals the social scene in one
part of the Iowa country: "Our neighbors are for the most part from
Holtaalen and often of a Sunday we gather together, sometimes for
scriptural readings. Last Christmas during the holidays Br Olsen from
Holtaalen visited us and several neighbors; a month ago Jokom Nilsen
stus from Rraas and Elisabeth-Maria were here . . . last Easter we
visited them and thus it goes. We are often visited by our neighbors from
Rraas [213] because they have to pass by our place on the way to
market." {11}
Occasionally there might be a picnic to enliven the outlook of the
immigrants. On September 19, 1853, a number of Norwegians living in the
Boston region carried picnic baskets to a lake called Fresh Pond. This
place, wrote one of the campers, "had something so Norwegian about it
that involuntarily we were reminded of our dear fatherland." Here they
sang and made speeches, and one of the group composed a special song for
the occasion. The practical outcome of the picnic was that they "decided
to form a society for the purpose of helping Norwegian newcomers who did
not know the language or the customs" of America. {12} More
characteristic than such secular celebrations were the festivals of the
church, scrupulously observed, though perhaps lacking some of the
solemnity that clothed them in the old country. "In preaching to his
various congregations," writes Mrs. Brandt, "my husband observed and made
good use of all the church festivals during the year: first, second, and
third day of Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, first, second, and
third day of Easter, Pentecost, prayer day, Thanksgiving, and so forth.
Services were held in sod houses and in schoolhouses when they were
available." {13} The adoption of American holidays came gradually, though
Thanksgiving was observed in the 1850's by the Norwegians in Wisconsin,
long before President Lincoln's historic call for a national day of
thanks. {14}
The immigrants had not been long in America before they felt the
contagion of the American Fourth of July. In 1846 Sren Bache
participated in a July 4 celebration marked by a parade, speeches, a
public dinner at noon, music and [214] orations at a near-by grove in the
afternoon, and a torchlight parade in the evening. {15} Larson tells of
the typical July 4 celebration in an Iowa community in the years after
the Civil War --- the "roar of something that was called artillery" in
the morning; the rumble of farmers' wagons coming into town; the
procession to a grove, where there was a program culminating in an
oration; and then, later in the day, amusements, dancing, and a display
of fireworks. In the 1870's, when Larson was a boy, Norwegians were
occasionally represented among the speakers of the day. "Nothing so far
in my life had impressed me like this gorgeous day in Forest City,"
Larson wrote many years later. "The crowding and jostling on the rickety
sidewalks, the noise and din to which there was no lull, the blare of the
band and the overpowering rhythm of the martial airs, the pageantry, the
flags, and the bunting --- all of these had a subtle power of
fascination, even when they confused and almost distracted me." {16} One
may safely think of Larson as the typical Norwegian-American boy in this
reaction to the traditional American Fourth. As the Norwegian Americans
developed their own community life, they began to plan and manage their
own Fourth of July celebrations, sometimes including a sermon as well as
the usual patriotic address, and singing both "America" and the national
anthem of Norway. {17} As early as 1837 a party of immigrants celebrated
the Norwegian national holiday in mid-ocean under the leadership of Ole
Rynning, but there seems to be little evidence of an interest in the
Seventeenth of May in the early Norwegian colonies of the West. By the
1860's Seventeenth of May celebrations were being held in some
communities where there were many Norwegian immigrants; widespread
observance of the Norwegian national holiday did not develop until [215]
somewhat later; and its vogue in America was influenced by the rise of
the custom in Norway, which in turn was closely connected with Norwegian
political currents of the 1860's. Syttende Mai became ultimately a
recognized social institution among the Norwegian Americans --- a part of
their folkways --- and many organizations gave it a large place in their
activities. {18}
Christmas among the early immigrants was celebrated, as in Norway, for
the entire Twelfth-night period. There was an attempt to reproduce the
traditional Norwegian Christmas, but inevitably there were American
innovations and as the settlers adjusted themselves to the American
tempo, the celebration tended to be distinctly less protracted than it
had been in the old country. In the early years Christmas was primarily a
family occasion, though neighbors might drop in as guests. There seem to
have been at first few presents, seldom a Christmas tree, no hanging of
stockings, and no talk of Santa Claus. In time American customs were
widely adopted and merged with the Norwegian. An authentic picture of
Christmas customs on the frontier is given by a daughter of pioneers,
Aaste Wilson, who writes, "They practiced the old customs from Norway.
They invited one another to Christmas celebrations, and then they had
home-brewed ale, made from malt or molasses or sugar cane. There were
some who had whisky, too, but money was scarce and they couldn't have
much of anything. . . . Nearly everybody slaughtered for Christmas so
that they could have meat and sausages. Then they had potatoes and flat
bread and doughnuts and sauce made from dried apples. And most of them
had cream porridge. We youngsters liked to stay and listen to the old
folks and thought it good fun when they told about old things from
Norway. They would [216] talk about all kinds of things and even tell
stories of trolls and ghosts. . . . Sometimes they would sing ballads and
stev," or impromptu rhymes. "I heard father occasionally sing 'Sons of
Norway, the age-old kingdom,'" she writes. "It was the women especially
who sang stev, and sometimes they would have stev competitions." Before
Christmas came, "everybody was terribly busy," for "then people had to
whitewash their log houses and bake and slaughter." The children "longed
desperately for Christmas to come was a wonderful event to them "even if
the houses were small and low." Then on Christmas Eve there was a great
dinner, with cream porridge as the chief dish. There were songs before
and after the meal, and there was a table prayer when "we held each
other's hands and gave thanks for the food. Father said they always did
that at home in Sauherad." {19}
Professor Laurence M. Larson reports that December 24 Little Christmas
Day, as it was called --- was essentially secular, a day for the
children, whereas Christmas Day proper and the second and third Christmas
days were church days, observed with special services, including an
offering to the minister. Larson recalls that both the house and the
children were scrubbed vigorously in preparation for the great day. The
Yule meal was the Christmas Eve dinner, introduced by a hymn, the reading
of the Christmas story, and a grace by one of the children. Then came a
feast of rice pudding, bread, apples, and candies. "To have so many good
things at the same meal was a real experience." {20} Lulla Preus
remembers that in the Preus parsonage at Paint Creek the custom of using
a Christmas tree was observed, with candles, paper ornaments, gilded
nuts, and the like. [217] There was dancing, singing, and playing
around the tree, then a banquet to which fattigmand and julekake added
the crowning touch. {21} In the Brandt parsonage on the Dakota prairie,
many years later, a congregational Christmas festival was held, with
gifts for all the children, a box-elder tree substituting for an
evergreen. {22} In the Veblen home there was a special cake for each
child, with his name inscribed in frosting. Each youngster was given a
large, hand-dipped candle, and all the candles were lighted
simultaneously "so that the sudden outburst of brightness would be a
symbol of the Star of Bethlehem." {23} In many communities the fine old
custom of putting out a sheaf of grain for the birds was carefully
observed.
Besides the familiar hymns of the immigrants, sung both in church and in
home, there was a wealth of folk song kept alive through use on many
occasions. Some of the songs were rollicking and lusty, some plaintive
and melancholy. There were cradlesongs like "Bissam, bissam baadne "; and
love songs like "Oh, Ole, Ole, I loved you so dearly" or "Astri! Mi
Astri! " --- a charming ballad reminiscent of the English "Drink to Me
Only with Thine Eyes." There were shepherd's calls that seemed to carry
echoes within echoes, and there was a sad lament for "My Tulla," a
favorite sheep traded to the wolf for a "bloody spot on my finger."
Children joined with older folk in singing about the old lady from
Hakkedalen:

Here comes on crutches Sally
Far up in Hakke Valley. [218]

And they liked the ballad of Paul and Reynard the Fox. At a frontier
party, nearly everybody both could and would join heartily in singing to
a lively tune the ancient song "Aa kjre vatten, aa kjre ve' "'

Oh, carry water and carry wood,
And drive the timber o'er the line, Sir.
Oh, drive and carry whate'er you would,
I'll take my sweetheart every time, Sir.
With cheeks so red and with eyes so blue,
The lovely maidens they thrill me through.
For me alone
Give me my own,
And life will be a merry rhyme, Sir. {24}

It was no chance circumstance, but a natural development, that Auber
Forestier and Rasmus B. Anderson in the early 1880's brought out a Norway
Music Album which made available for home use the old Norwegian folk
songs, spring dances, and hallings, with English translations of the
original texts. {25}

<1> Rene, Historie om udvandringen fra Voss, 321.
<2> Bache Diary, November 9, 1839.
<3> Koren, Fra pioneertiden, 79, 95.
<4> Fra pioneertiden, 99-102, 108 ff.
<5> Fra pioneertiden, 111,117, 130, 139.
<6> Fra pioneertiden, 157, 183; Lulla Preus, "Minder fra den gamle Paint
Creek prstegaard," in Symra, 7:1-15 (1911).
<7> Brandt, in Studies and Records, 7:4, 16-18.
<8> See Lars Larsen's letter, written in October, 1837, in Stavanger
amtstidende og adresseavis, December 15, 1887.
<9> "His hospitable cabin," writes Albert O. Barton, "became the
temporary home for hundreds of other immigrants, and was even known as
the ' Heg Hotel.'" "Muskego, the Most Historic Norwegian Colony," in
Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 23 (January, 1924).
<10> Quoted by Be, in Studies and Records, 6: 51.
<11> Narjord to relatives in Norway, January 26, 1857.
<12> A letter from Massachusetts, October 20, 1853, in
Christiania-posten, January 6, 1854.
<13> Brandt, in Studies and Records, 7:12.
<14> Emigranten, November 18, 1857.
<15> Bache Diary, July 4, 1846. This early Fourth of July celebration was
held in Madison, Wisconsin.
<16> Larson, Log Book, 114-117.
<17> Brandt, in Studies and Records, 7: 23, 24.
<18> Emigranten, July 18, 1864; Carl G. O. Hansen, "Pressen til
borgerkrigens slutning," in Johannes B. Wist, ed., Norsk-amerikanernes
festskrift 1914, 34, 35 (Decorah, 1914).
<19> Aaste Wilson, "Live blant nybyggjarane," in Telesoga, no. 33, p.
30-32 (September, 1917). See also, for Norwegian backgrounds, Ola
Andreassen, "Lidt om juleskikkene i gamle dage," in Telesoga, no. 32, p.
24-29 (June, 1917).
<20> Larson, Log Book, 82-84.
<21> Preus, in Symra, 7:8-11.
<22> Brandt, in Studies and Records, 7:18-20.
<23> A. A. Veblen, "Jul i Manitowoc-skogen," in Saraband, no. 93, p.
134-148 (January, 1916). See also an article in the same issue of Samband
by Eldrid Wthing-Ringerud on "Gamle juleskikke." The quotation is from
Ylvisaker, Eminent Pioneers, 5. Veblen, in his vivid description of early
Christmas customs, recalls gifts as a part of the celebration. He
mentions handkerchiefs, mouth organs, drums, books, dolls, and striped
candy. Ale was brewed at home for Christmas, and Veblen also remembers
that since whisky was then very inexpensive, those who liked liquor for
the Christmas festivities had little difficulty in getting it.
<24> My translation of this song is a free one. See the program of the
St. Paul Festival of Nations, April 21, 22, 23, 1939, p. 24.
<25> Rasmus B. Anderson and Auber Forestier, eds., The Norway Music Album
(Boston, 1881). This valuable work was published in a new edition in
1909.

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