Spring Grove, the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, is still known for its Norwegian heritage. But the non-Norwegian name was given to the village by Pennsylvania printer James Smith, who in 1852 was Spring Grove’s first settler. His 1853 store was the first business. Smith would also be the first Justice of the Peace and postmaster.
Before the influx of Norwegian settlers began in the 1850s, the area was platted into sections and townships by surveyors and land speculators, known as “Yankees,” those of English heritage from the eastern states. The 40 acres, on which the village would soon stand, was purchased by William Fleming from Embrick Benson Orpheim for $100, twice the government price.
The earliest Scandinavian businessmen was log-cabin store owner Mons Fladager, who arrived in Spring Grove in 1859, the same year Smith relocated to Caledonia. Fladager’s influence resulted in him being regarded as “the Father of Spring Grove.” Other early Norwegian businessmen included Peter Halverson Torgenrud, tailor Ole Evenson and blacksmith Ole Stenroden, the latter referred to in the early 1870s as the richest man in Spring Grove. By 1866, (14 years after settlement by Yankees and seven years after the arrival of Fladager) all businessmen were said to be Scandinavian. Some, like Fladager, had moved from earlier Norwegian settlements in Wisconsin and Iowa, but most came directly from Europe. Land agents in New York advertised land out west. After Wisconsin began to fill up, Minnesota Territory became a primary destination, and hundreds of Norwegians would come.
Local historian Jane Briggs Palen wrote, “For the next 100 years, an unsuspecting person could be placed in Wilmington, Spring Grove or Black Hammer townships and be thoroughly convinced he was still in Norway. Wall-to-wall Norwegian names and dialects.”
On September 25, 1947, the Spring Grove Herald published a translation into English by Clara C. Johnsrud Torvik a brief history of Spring Grove, written originally by her late uncle, Sven H. Ellestad and published in Norwegian by him as the editor of the Spring Grove-posten on April 15, 1880. It follows with original spelling, capitalization and punctuation or lack thereof:
“Spring Grove, Minnesota”
“Thirty years ago the vicinity of the present Spring Grove was a wilderness. The only enlivening sounds were the calls of the wild animals, the songs of the birds, and the weird cry of wandering hordes of Indians. The fertile land lay barren; no sound of an axe was heard in the woodland, and no smoke from a friendly, family hearth rose toward the heavens.
“The trend of the caravans of immigrants was toward the west, and they came quickly. As early as the summer of 1852, Peter Johnson Lommen, of Valdris Norway, came with his team and settled where he now dwells, about two miles northwest of Spring Grove.
“Soon others came to make their home here. Among them were Even Hoime, Knut Bergo, Haaken Narveson, Knudt Kieland, Ole and Thorleif Berg, Torgeir Johnson, Ole Ulen, and John Kroshus.
“That fall Ole Ristey came, who passed away a few years ago, at a ripe, old age. The following year more settlers came and before long all the tillable land of a large area was taken possession of by sturdy pioneers, most of the(m) Norwegians.
“The first school house was built in 1857, and the same year the Rev. C. F. Claussen arrived, who was a theological graduate from the University of Oslo, Norway, and a friendly, personable older man. An American, Smith by name, who at present has his home in Caledonia, was the first merchant in Spring Grove. Mons Fladager, a brother of the sculptor Ole Fladager, who died in Rome, Italy a few years ago was the second merchant here.
(At this point in her 1947 translation, the contributor Clara Torvik inserts the following: People well remember the Fladager Store on the north side of Main street, with a big iron lion as its sign, which now is found by the Fladager store.)
“Soon after Mr. Fladager came the merchants Nils Hendrickson, and Nils Olsen. Enoch Anderson of Trondheim, Norway was the first blacksmith, and soon Spring Grove had business establishments representing almost all lines of business and trade.
“The first church erected was completed in 1868, and was torn down in 1879, as a much longer, magnificent church edifice had been erected and was in use at that time. Pastor Claussen passed away in 1870 after a painful illness, and was succeeded by the Rev. Styrk S. Reque, a man full of zeal and the vigor of strong manhood. As his predecessor had done, so he also served, not only Spring Grove Trinity Lutheran church, but Wilmington; Black Hammer and Riceford congregations.
“The first train rolled into Spring Grove, October 8, 1879, and we can now if we may express ourselves in this fashion, travel to all parts of the world on the wings of steam power!
“While Spring Grove has grown to be a beautiful and busy village, the surrounding territory has also made great progress. Everywhere the eye beholds well cultivated fields, green valleys, cool, shady woodlands and well built up rural homes. Prosperity is in evidence in spite of meager crops the last years.
“The author Krstofer Janson, visited here during his trip through the states, and lectured here March first and second, this spring. We hope this talented man’s discourse on life and its problems will be an inspiration and have a lasting effect for the future.
“If it is admitted that Spring Grove and vicinity have contributed somewhat toward the civilization of the northwest, it may not be too assuming on our part if we wish to take part in greater measure by sending forth this little, unpretentious Spring Grove-Post into the world.
“We have already expressed in our subscription invitation our standpoint, that we love the common people and those in authority, and love and respect the noble-and-freedom-loving men and women, without reference to station in life, or wealth, or the lack of it.”
Sources: September 25, 1947, Spring Grove Herald and 1991 book, “Soil, Timber and A Spring,” by Jane Briggs Palen.