Plains Folk

Lincoln and Liberty


Odd, that the bust of Abraham Lincoln which stands alongside the Traill County Courthouse in Hillsboro, North Dakota, is neglected, or at least taken for granted, while its duplicate, which stands in Frogner Park of Oslo, Norway, is revered. Lincoln is a powerful, international symbol of liberty, something that is appreciated perhaps only when it is threatened, as was the liberty of Norwegians during the Second World War. Here is the story of these two Lincolns, the one in North Dakota, the other in Norway, from which homeland so many settlers of Dakota hailed.

In 1913 Governor Louis B. Hanna of North Dakota, a Republican, attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg. This set him thinking about some sort of memorial to be erected in North Dakota, and Lincoln seemed a likely subject, not only because he stood for union and liberty but also because he had signed the Homestead Act of 1862. I have to think Hanna had political points in mind as he organized the campaign to mint two busts of Lincoln, one to be emplaced here, the other in Norway. How better to cement the identification of Norwegian folk in Dakota with his party, the Grand Old Party, than with this impressive stroke of international iconography. The legislature went along by passing a Norway Centennial bill, which provided the impetus behind the monuments, although private contributions were required.

Norwegian immigrant activist Herman O. Fjelde got involved. He first wanted Gutzon Borglum to be the sculptor, but the commission eventually went to Herman Fjelde’s nephew, Paul Fjelde.

I first learned the facts about the Fjelde busts of Lincoln from one of my good seminar students, Kurt Easterday. He recounts how on July 4, 1914, Governor Hanna’s daughter Dorothy unveiled the Lincoln bust in Oslo. Among the dignitaries who accompanied the governor for the presentation was Smith Stimmel of Fargo, who had served in President Lincoln’s personal guard. In his speech for the occasion, which Kurt retrieved from the state archives, Hanna not only lauded Lincoln but also noted that about a third of the people of North Dakota had come from Norway and had “done their part in building up and in the making of a great state.”

The replica bust in Hillsboro was not unveiled until September 8, 1918. It was a occasion enlivened by the music of the Portland Concert Band, the rhetoric of state supreme court justice Andrew A. Bruce, and the enthusiasm of several thousand spectators–on a grand, albeit drizzly, day in Hillsboro.

Now I learn from additional research by Claudia Pratt that there is another replica of the Fjelde bust of Lincoln, for a total of three. It stands in front of the Geneseo Historical Museum, in Illinois. This one has a checkered history, since it was first placed in Chicago, then relocated to Atkinson before finally being situated in Geneseo.

The original plaster model for the casting is in Valley City, which town the artist Fjelde once called home. This piece also was something of a hot potato, having been shifted from one location to another after Fjelde gave it to Valley City Normal School in 1919. Today it can be viewed in Allen Memorial Library at Valley City State University.

Now, here is the part of the story that should give us pause. During the Nazi occupation of Norway in the Second World War, patriotic and liberty-loving Norwegians established the habit of gathering by the bust of Lincoln given them by the people of North Dakota as a demonstration of solidarity each 4th of July. They continue to do so to this day. People of Hillsboro, have you ever thought of emulating the custom of our Norwegian kinsmen? It seems like the right thing to do.

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