Plains Folk

Bjornson in Mayville


Stories are the means by which we define ourselves, as individuals or as groups. Early in the 20th century one group that was defining itself, persistently, was Norwegian-Americans. Out from the white-steepled churches and the stuffy lodges they came, determined to claim their place at the American table. And they had a story.

The Norse, they insisted, were the originators of all that was good about Anglo-American civilization. The Norse were the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, as well as of the Normans, and so anything good that was British or American, the Norse deserved the credit. This story they told at the same time they celebrated the long-awaited independence of Norway from the tyrannous Swedes.

Lest the story be forgotten, the Norwegians encoded it into monuments of stone and bronze–most often into Bautastein, that is, monuments of rough-cut stone with bronze figures inset. They celebrated the achievements of Henrik Wergeland, the poet; Henrik Ibsen, the playwrite; Ivar Aasen, the linguist; and Hans Nielsen Hauge, the theologian.

Most of all they celebrated their national poet, the author of what would become their national anthem, “Ja Vi Elsker Dette Landet”–the gloriously romantic Bjornsterne Bjornson. This poet not only championed independence and national identity at home, he also came to America and told Norwegian-Americans that they were the hope of the future, because they were “stronger, handsomer, and prouder than in Norway.”

Because much Bjornson’s verse extolled the virtues of rural people, they placed a monument to him on the campus of the agricultural college in Fargo. Then the people of Mayville, too, joined in the identity quest by erecting their own Bjornson Bautastein, in 1916. I know this story by virtue of the research by one of my fine seminar students, Patrick Strand.

To sculpt the image of Bjornson the patriots of Mayville, organized as a Sons of Norway lodge, turned to Paul Fjelde, a sculptor well known in the community of Norwegians. The finished monument, twelve feet tall, was unveiled on June 7, 1916, in Railroad Park, near the Great Northern depot, and was quickly bedecked with wreaths placed by admirers. Governor Hanna was unable to attend, but he sent a wreath to be placed by the sculptor’s uncle, Herman Fjelde. The local editor remarked that Bjornson “is more beloved by his countrymen than any other man. . . . He gave Norway its national song, and all through his life he fought for a free and independent Norway.”

At the four-course evening banquet which followed, guest speaker Waldemar Ager of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who was considered the most eloquent Norwegian speaker in America, defied the sentiments of nativist Americans by praising the strength and patriotism of “hyphenated Americans” of Norwegian origin.

And after that, as with most monuments made on the prairies in those days, this one was pretty much forgotten. In 1975 it was moved over into the developing Pioneer Park of Mayville. When my researcher, Patrick Strand, visited the monument, he asked a wise-looking older gentleman about it; the man replied he hadn’t ever thought about it and had no idea what it represented.

Maybe that is as it should be. The Norwegians have indeed claimed their place at the American table, and they don’t need to belabor the point. Still, perhaps a wreath of green and a word of reverence on Syttende Mai would be in order.

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