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It was the beauty of the region that attracted Norwegian settlers here over a hundred and fifty years ago, and it’s the beauty that continues to attract people today. In those early years, Minnesota was rugged and unsettled, fraught with danger, and brimming with adversity. It was a wild land that needed taming. For that we give credit to the hardy Norwegians who settled this area with nothing but a strong back and a dream.
Celebrating that legacy, and preserving the many treasured Norwegian customs, is the reason the Sons Of Norway continue to meet each month in Lanesboro. The Heimbygda Lodge meets the first Thursday of each month for a chance to socialize, learn more about their homeland and plan future events to enhance "Norwegian Pride" in the area. The Lodge classifies themselves as a small group with only 72 members, but what they lack in size they make up in loyalty, with more than half the group attending every meeting. "Even when the weather gets bad, we still have good attendance," boasts chapter secretary Audrey Overland.
Remarkably, the Sons of Norway or the "Sonner av Norge" was originally inspired by a woman, Ingeborg Levorsdatter Langeberg. Langeberg was the first permanent Norwegian resident of Minnesota working as a maid for Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey. She met and married a wealthy farmer and settled in an area which is now a northern suburb of Minneapolis. She used her home as a beacon to attract other Norwegian newcomers. One of those was Ole Draxten who became the first Norwegian to build a house in the Minneapolis area. Later, his son Bersvend became the first Supreme President of the Sons of Norway.
In 1895 as the country trudged through a crippling depression, a group of 18 Norwegians gathered together to find a way to help their businesses and families survive. Many of them remembered an assistance plan from their homeland in which participants contributed a little money each week in return for medical care for their families. With this plan in mind, and a desire to preserve the Norwegian language, arts and literature, the "Bjornstjerne Bjornson" was formed. Shortly thereafter the name, which was unpronounceable to most, was changed to the "Sonner av Norge”.
The Lanesboro Chapter was established on July 11, 1929 and meetings were held at the Odd Fellows Hall and the Lutheran Church in town until the chapter bought the current hall in 1960. Many historic events have taken place in the history of the Lodge, however the most remarkable was a visit from the King of Norway. The historical minutes simply state: "In 1939 the King of Norway visited Lanesboro in the Park. Irving Abrahamson and Rolland Brekke sang for the king."
It is that sort of understatement that is perhaps the most endearing of the notable Norwegians traits. Another that comes to mind is the desire to simplify their daily tasks. It is this characteristic that helped settle the Bluff Country area. Dale Overland explains, "It was mostly farmers who settled in this area. They’d put their windmills and cysterns on the top of a hill and then used gravity to carry the water, first to the barn, then to the livestock and then to the house at the bottom of the hill. That way they didnt have to carry the water uphill by hand."
Of course every Norwegian loves a good story and most are happy to be the one doing the telling. Don Wangen loves to talk about visiting Norway almost as much as he likes visiting Norway which he and his wife Delores have done six times. In 1976 on their first trip to the homeland the two visited several of the matriarchs of Don’s family. The older ladies hand sewed a complete Bunad (Bunad is the formal native costume of Norway) for Delores and presented it to her at a family gathering. The gift, which Delores treasures, enhanced in value the following year when one of the original matriarchs passed away. "So much of the old ways are fading away its nice to have such a personal reminder of our heritage," says Don.
Planning a trip to the "old Country" for Dale and Audrey Overland took a lot of coordinating since both have family there. The list of families to visit grew to over fifteen. Remarkably, upon their arrival in Norway they discovered that one of Audreys relatives was the next door neighbor to one of Dales family members. Dale laughed, still amazed at the coincidence, "That’s proof we live in a small world."
A source of pride is the role the Lodge played in the dedication of the Norwegian Heritage plaque at "Inspiration Point”, a few miles west of town. A visit to Lanesboro would not be complete with out a drive up to the scenic turn-off to admire the breathtaking view and read about the industrious forefathers who brought the best of the past and merged it with their dream for a culturally rich future. The result has been many descendants of Norway occupying high positions in politics, business, education and religion.
There is no doubt that religion played an enormous role in the lives of the early settlers. For many the only break from farm work was the weekly trip to church on Sunday. The Union Prairie Lutheran Church was one such gathering place that sprung up in the early part of the century and continues to offer inspiration today. Churches not only met the religious needs of the immigrants but also served as social centers where families could share a meal and the latest news. In that simpler time, church was often the place where young couples could meet and get acquainted under the watchful eyes of their parents. Lutheran churches dot the landscape in and around Lanesboro and many continue to be populated by descendants of their founding fathers.
It is the villages, farms and churches nestled in the rolling hills and fertile valleys that make the area known as "The Bluff Country" so appealing. With one foot in the 21st century it isn’t too hard to look back over our shoulder to view what those early Norwegians immigrants found so inviting one hundred and fifty years ago. The ways of the old country and the integrity of the land are worth preserving. Groups like the Sons of Norway remind us to look to the future, without forgetting to look back at the past.
To learn more about the Sons of Norway or Norwegian-American culture, plan to attend the Annual Frokost (Norwegian Buffet Breakfast) on Saturday, May 12, 2001, from 8-11 am. at the Sons of Norway hall in Lanesboro.
The Norwegian Heritage Sign At Inspiration Point reads:
Minnesotas Norwegian Americans
Like immigrants from many European nations in the mid-19th century, Norwegians left their homeland to escape overpopulation, food shortages and farm foreclosures. They began arriving in Minnesota in the 1850's, drawn by rich farmland and job opportunities. Eventually they grew to become the state’s third largest ethnic group, and Minnesota became a national cultural center for Norwegian Americans.
Among the first to arrive were immigrants who had first settled in Wisconsin and then migrated into southeastern Minnesota. There they formed rural communities anchored by Lutheran churches, which were social and religious centers and visible links to the traditions of Norway.
As these farming settlements grew, newcomers moved on to the prairies of central and western Minnesota. When the railroad reached Moorhead in 1872, Norwegian immigrants poured into the Red River Valley. The earliest and most numerous group of European settlers in the valley, they quickly became leaders of business and local affairs.
Norwegian immigrants in the 1880's and 1890's found other employment as good farmland became scarce. Some pioneered commercial fishing on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Others gravitated to the cities and the iron ranges, where t