Det norske flyttelasset

("Baggage from Norway")

NB: This is a translation of the article, "Det norske flyttelasset," published on the website. It is made with the permission of NRK, The Norwegian Broadcasting Company, for which I am very grateful. This is my own translation; I am solely responsible for any errors or omissions.

Click here to go to the original article.

– Marv Slind (

Baggage from Norway

Iowa/USA (NRK): Are you searching for "Norway in the Old Days"? Take a trip to the USA.

Matunda Bigirimana, Journalist
Karen Brodshaug Sveen, Journalist
Ingeborg Rygh Hjorthen, Research

"There are no other emigrants who have so many chests with them as the Norwegians . […] Many lose their health due to the large chests and become sick."

The quotation is from the book, "Norway in America: Life's pictures from Norwegians' life and history in the United States." Here is another:

"[…] He wore himself out with a large grindstone, he absolutely had to have it with him, and Elling Bygdaasen fell under a large chest, in which there were two cart wheels, and broke his thigh bone, so he was lying by the road. Perhaps he's still lying there, because everyone thought that they had enough to take care of themselves."

Norwegians were notorious for bringing chests stuffed full of things from their homeland when they came to the USA in the great emigration in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Now their baggage represents the Norwegian cultural heritage of Norwegian Americans

Sweater Community

Somewhat humously, Thorgeir Storesund Kolshus refers to the Norwegian Americans' relationship to Norway as long distance nationalism. He is a social anthropologist, and professor of international studies and interpreter education at OsloMet (previously the College in Oslo and Akershus).

Storesund Kolshus explains that Norwegian Americans, like other immigrants, show their cultural identity with things. Things the local community perceives as typical for the homeland. It can be going around in a sweater or bunad, working with rosemaling, or participating in the ritual eating of lutefisk.

Even as these Norwegian earmarks develop a little differently in USA than in Norway, they have an important function. They shape belonging to a culture, a history, and an admission ticket to a defined community.

– Sigrid would have been proud

On a spring morning in 1893, Sigrid Ellingsdatter Seim goes to the quay in Granvin in Hardangerfjord. Chests loaded with clothing and equipment have been loaded in advance, and stand ready on the quay together with the rest of the travel goods that will go to America.

The family is there to say farewell. That may be the last time Sigrid will see them. Just before the ship pulls away, her aunt comes running to the ship. She takes off her sølje [traditional Norwegian brooch] and fastens it to Sigrid's dress. Then the ship, with Sigrid on board, heads out of the fjord, bound for the USA.

Now, 125 years later, 54-year-old Anna Linell sits in a conference room at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, with the same sølje in her hands.

Photo caption:
OUTSIDE THE MUSEUM: Anna Linell with the sølje in her hands. She stands outside the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Many of the objects that were brought to America by Norwegian immigrants can now be found here, in this museum. Anna is a third generation descendant of immigrants from Norway, and received the sølje from her mother, who in turn got it from her aunt: Sigrid Ellingsdatter Seim from Granvin.

In the museum, Anna sits with the sølje and smiles about a memory from her childhood.

– I remember when I got my first bunad as a six-year-old, and my grandmother fastened the sølje on it and said "Sigrid would have been proud."

Her grandmother was conscious of her roots and taught the young ones in the family about Norwegian culture and tradition.

– The sølje ties me to a part of a long history. It has taught me about my cultural heritage, and brought my Norwegian relatives to life for me.

Objects like this do exactly that. They help Norwegian descendants to maintain contact with their own history. That is why many of them give their heritage pieces to the museum, so that they can be preserved.

– It was both painful and good for me to give this sølje to the museum. It was like giving a part of myself. But I know that it will be taken care of here. That way many can take part in the history, and learn about Norwegian culture.

Norway is clearly visible

Decorah is the northernmost town in Iowa, near the border with Minnesota, and has about 8,000 inhabitants. It is about the same size as Hammerfest, Kløfta or Lillesand, and is in the middle of the area where the most Norwegians settled. It is kind of a "Little Norway" in the USA.

The Norwegian influence is visible in Decorah. Humorous signs in Norwegian, troll trinkets, and rosemalled mailboxes decorate the town. Also the many objects that once came here in immigrant chests are well preserved today by their descendants.

Photo caption:
HUMOR: Descendants are very proud of their Norwegian culture. That can be seen, among other things, in jokes and signs all around the town.

Culture Frozen in Time

Nearly a million Norwegians emigrated to the USA between 1825 and 1920. In the period 1880 to 1893, Norwegians were the second largest immigrant group that came to the USA from Europe (after the Irish). There are Norwegian and Swedish names to be seen everywhere, on street signs and mail boxes. In a church cemetery that lies a short drive outside of Decorah's center, there are many "Andersen" and "Swendsen" to be seen on grave markers.

There are many reasons people emigrated. In the period in which the most Norwegians left, Norway was a poor agricultural land with a rapidly growing population. Many hoped that America would offer opportunities that they did not have at home.

The USA needed labor and settlers who could drive away Indians and become soldiers, and attracted emigrants with cheap soil known as Government Land. "The Homestead Act" of 1862 gave immigrants 650 units of land [150 acres/65 hectares] to own after five years of required residence and work.

Photo caption:
THE PRAIRIE: The landscape in Iowa and Minnesota is flat, and very different from the landscape that many of the Norwegian immigrants came from.

But even though the agricultural land was cheap, there were many other things with cost. All of the materials that were needed to build a house had to be purchased, in addition to farm equipment. Many had dreamed that life in the USA would be easier than at home, but many must have been disappointed.

Today many Norwegian descendants live in the USA almost like people live in Norway.

Social anthropologist Thorgeir Storesund Kolshus explains that Norwegian Americans maintain a kind of 1800s version of Norwegian culture. Thus what are effectively immigrant Norsemen can be important resources in the advancement of traditional handicrafts.

– In one way they are like a time machine. Culture is frozen in time, says Storesund Kolshus.

He explains further that it is easy to draw parallels to, for example, the Norwegian-Pakistani culture in Norway. Pakistanis who visit their families in Norway can expect to meet a kind of 60's-70's Pakistan, like it was when many Pakistanis came to Norway.

She brought a book case with her

Norwegian Americans that we meet in Decorah come from many different places in Norway. Oppland was the district in Norway from which the most Norwegians emigrated in the period from 1866 to 1915, but people left from the entire country.,

Number of emigrants according to districts 1866-1915

Oppland - 72 605
Kristiania [Oslo] city - 54 601
Rogaland - 54 495
Hedmark - 47 894
Buskerud - 41 770
Sør-Trøndelag - 41 551
Vest-Agder - 37 607
Hordaland - 35 521
Møre - 32 991
Sogn og Fjordane - 32 048
Telemark - 31 240
Aust-Agder - 30 694
Akershus - 30 212
Nord-Trøndelag - 28 987
Nordland - 26 547
Østfold - 23 371
Vestfold - 21 375
Bergen city - 16 157
Troms - 10 251
Finnmark - 6 824
Total: 676 741

Among the people from Rogaland was the teacher, Wilhelmine Brekke Tønnesen. Her husband had emigrated earlier, and returned to Norway to get her. Together they left their home county of Lista in 1899.

Wilhelmine brought books, her sewing machine, a book case (!), and a photo album.

Photo caption:
GRANDMOTHER: Wilhelmine Tønnesen Brekke was Harley Refsal's grandmother. Harley has kept photos in addition to everything the family has treasured from what she brought with her on her journey across the sea.

Emigrants often brought with them tools which they thought would be difficult or expensive to obtain in the USA: if you were a blacksmith, you might bring your anvil, and if you were a cabinet maker, you packed your plane, hammer, and axe. Pots and pans were also common items to have in one's America chest.

In addition, they also had with them personal objects which reminded them of their homeland. The thing that they were guaranteed to have with them was the Bible. Usually the family Bible.

Wilhelmine and her husband built up a farm and a life in Hoffman, Minnesota. They had four children.

We meet Harley Refsal, Wilhelmine's grandson.

Photo caption:
WOOD WORK: Harley Refsal enjoys working with handicrafts, and prefers to eat with a spoon he has made himself. He spends a lot of time with wood working, either alone or with a full class at the Vesterheim Museum.

Harley grew up on his grandparents' farm in Minnesota. Today he is 74 years old. As a boy, he learned wood carving from his father. Today he is the one who is teaching the art.

We meet in the wood working room at Vesterheim Museum. Here he teaches a course in figure carving for Norwegian Americans. It is clear that he is comfortable in this room.

Harley has a handmade sheath of teger [birch roots] (an advanced style of finely meshed flatwork made from the thin roots) around his neck, with a little knife in it.

– All of my Norwegian relatives worked in handicrafts, and I believe those are some of the most important things that I have preserved of my heritage.

Harley clears the worktable of tools, and immediately finds a large box. He carefully removes one thing from it.

– These are things that belonged to my grandmother, Wilhelmine Tønnesen Brekke.

The grandson has taken care of almost everything his grandmother had with her, including bus tickets, pharmacy prescriptions, and photo album. The grandmother and her family did not have much money. To contribute to the family economy, Wilhelmine made different types of lace work.

She collected samples of what she could make in a little book.

Photo caption:
DELICATE: There are more than just objects that have gone into her heritage.

– I have preserved my grandmother's things because I want to have something with her name on it, and because they remind me of my Norwegian background.

And Harley knows a lot about traditional Norwegian handicrafts. Here in Decorah he teaches what he can as a folk art teacher at Luther College, but he has also taught figure carving at Raulandsakademiet in Norway.

A third generation descendant of Norwegian immigrants thus travels back to the old country to teach Norwegians traditional Norwegian handicrafts.

Above-average interest in Norwegian history

As elsewhere in Norway, emigration from counties in Trøndelag increased significantly in the last half of the 1800's.

Photo caption:
AUNT: Ragnhild Klegseth, photographed in the mid-1900s. She is Marvin's aunt [actually great-aunt, as noted in the body of the article], and among other things taught him to tell the difference between good and bad lefse.

Ragnhild Klegseth was one of those who made the journey. Klegseth came from Selbu early in the 1900's - to La Crosse in Washington. There she was welcomed by relatives who had emigrated earlier.

One of her descendants now lives in Decorah.

Marvin Slind lives in a residential area outside of town. Ragnhild Klegseth was his great aunt.

His Norwegian identity is important for Marvin, too, and he eagerly opens his home for journalists from the old country. He welcomes them with a big smile, and immediately offers coffee.

His wife has set the table with cups and cookies. Marvin has a lot to talk about and point out.

Photo caption:
CHEERFUL AND PROUD FELLOW: Marvin looks as Norwegian as they come, doesn't he?

While his wife is serving coffee, Marvin puts on a blue Setesdal sweater that a Norwegian relative knit for him. He appears proud; he is a tall and broad-shouldered man in his 70's, with a gray beard and a twinkle in his eye.

In his Setesdal sweater, he looks Norwegian to his roots, like he's been cut out of a Husfliden advertisement.

Marvin has set a flatbread basket on the table. His great-aunt Ragnhild brought it with her when she emigrated to the US. He points to a wall hanging behind him. It is also from Norway. It was his grandfather's.

– Things remind me of my ancestors.

Marvin is eager, and bubbling over with anecdotes about what it was like to visit Norway for the first time, as a young man at the summer school.

– What I experienced there had much in common with the Norwegian-American environment in the US. Most of it was SO familiar.

At home, his parents spoke Norwegian, made Norwegian Christmas cookies and lefse. Marvin remembers his childhood Christmas preparations. With a dreamy look, he talks about goro and fattigman.

We see that Marvin Slind has more than an average interest in Norwegian culture and history. And his home bears the imprint of that. On the wall in the entry way hang travel documents with information about passengers from Norway to Ellis Island, hung in black frames. He draws his finger down and lands on a name, Ole G. Slind.

– That is my grandfather.

Photo caption:
GRANDFATHER: Marvin Slind finds his grandfather's name on the list.

His finger continues on.

– He was on board this ship from Norway to the US.

After studying Scandinavian history, Marvin got a professorship at Luther College. Even though he is now retired, he continues to lecture.

He frequently travels to Norway. The auditorium has been exchanged for a ship's deck, and students replaced by cruise ship tourists. With the beautiful Geirangerfjord as a backdrop, Marvin gives lively talks about Norwegian history. About the life on the scraggy farms along the fjord, and the people who one day determined to travel away from there - to seek happiness in America.

Photo caption:
OLD MAP: Martin Ulvestad's map of "Norway in America." Source: Norwegian America: Among Emigrant Norwegians: Our Countrymen's Life and Conditions in the New World/Thoralv Klaveness, 1904

Photo caption:
IN NORWAY: Marvin Slind is often back in the land of his forefathers, introducing Norwegian cultural history to cruise passengers. He is photographed here at Flydalsjuvet, in Geiranger.

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