Dakota Datebook

Syttende Mai

Monday, May 17, 2004

Happy Syttende Mai! For those of you who don’t know what that is, an old article in the Hansboro News explains that May 17th is the “anniversary of the rise of modern Norway among the nations as an independent, self-governing kingdom…”

The year the article was written was 1914 – the year of Norway’s Jubilee – and it stated that the 100-year celebration was “of peculiar interest to about two and a quarter million people living in Norway and about two-thirds as many of their kinsmen in foreign countries, for the most part in the United States and Canada.”

During the years leading up to the centennial, Norwegians constructed a number of special buildings for a grand exposition. The Swedes decided to open the great Baltic Exposition at the same time, and the competition spurred the Norwegians to double their efforts to lure the most visitors. It was announced, “The cathedral of Trondheim, the most magnificent building in all Scandinavia, will be the scene of elaborate ceremonies,” and that, “Eidsvold, the birthplace of the constitution, will be the great Mecca of those who visit southern Norway.

A “quaint, almost homely building” was dedicated to “Det Udflyttede Norge,” or the Emigrated Norway. It housed exhibits from Norwegians living mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota. Many Norwegians who had moved to America and Canada were expected to come back for the festivities, and according to the Hansboro News, Norway wanted them back to stay. In a puffed-up bit of writing, the News reported that people back in the old country had found that Norwegians who had moved to America were much more enterprising than those who never ventured abroad.

“During the exposition,” the reporter wrote, “systematic efforts will be made to capture as many as possible of the 25,000 or more Norwegian visitors expected from abroad.” The story continued in a pure flight of fancy: “(Norway) has large areas of tillable soil that have never been put under the plow. The greatest drawing card to be aimed at the prospective settlers will be a list of farm and garden land for sale in all parts of Norway. The government has printed 20,000 copies of this list as a starter.” If the story was accurate, Norway was certainly in denial about the economic hardships that had caused so many of its people to move to America in the first place.

The largest Syttende Mai celebration outside of Norway that year took place at the Minneapolis fairgrounds. “New country” Norwegians had organized themselves into bygdelags, or unions, which were named for the area of Norway from which its members had moved. For example, people who emigrated from Trondheim were members of the Tronderlag.

There were about thirty of these unions that set up headquarters at the fairgrounds so members could meet up with their neighbors from the old country. Tens of thousands of people were expected to board special trains in North Dakota and other areas that would take them to this celebration.

Two months later, a state delegation traveled to Kristiania, Norway, where they presented a statue of Abraham Lincoln as a gift from the people of North Dakota. The unveiling took place at Frogner Park on July 4th. Senator J. G. Gundersen of Aneta read a poem by James Foley, the writer of the lyrics for the North Dakota Hymn. The “Chorus of Norwegian Singers of America” sang the Star Spangled Banner,” and addresses were given by Governor Louis Hanna of Fargo; editor P. O. Stromme of Grand Forks; and Smith Stimmel, the Fargo man who served as Lincoln’s bodyguard. The Luther College Concert Band played several numbers, including My Country Tis of Thee, and Governor Hanna’s daughter, Dorothy, unveiled the statue.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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