A different kind of Stavanger
Home on the prairie
LARS IDAR WAAGE
A crossroads. Ten houses and a church. Welcome to Stavanger.
In 1834, the first permanent Norwegian settlement in the United States was established. Far out in the farming county in Illinois, the families Leland, Hersdal, Rossedal, Madland, and Helland, among others, put down their roots. At some point, Stavanger was also settled. Why Stavanger? No one knows exactly when the place got its name or why. But everyone assumes that some emigrants from Rogaland who crossed the Atlantic either missed Norway or wanted to commemorate where they came from.
In this way Stavanger became Stavanger.
To drive through Stavanger takes about three seconds. To drive by on the main street takes about a half a second, and it is easy to miss the signs that tell you that you’ve arrived. But in the United States, not many clusters of houses are fortunate enough to get an official name. But if you search for “Stavanger, IL” on Google Maps and various weather sites, the results will take you right to this place. In the middle of no man’s land in America itself. Surrounded by enormous fields of corn and soybeans. Field after field, or acre after acre, as we would say in Norwegian.
But who lives here?
Are there eight houses in Stavanger or 10? Someone has insisted there are an entire 12. There is no definite answer, because right across the road, just 164 feet away, are new houses. But they are not allowed to be part of Stavanger.
“The suburbs. That’s what we call them—suburbs,” says Miriam Hauge, with a wide smile.
She is one of the permanent residents in Stavanger.
One of two who have Norwegian ancestry for the most part.
And the one who has been there longest.
Soon it is 50 years since she moved in at 2902 North 32nd Road, the second house on the left-hand side. One level, a big garden, and a garage. Like most of the other houses. In the driveway, the American flag waves around the clock. Several squirrels and a few birds have taken up residency in the garden.
A walk through Stavanger doesn’t take much time. There is no immediate or big opportunity to meet anyone either. There is a greater chance of meeting the dog from the neighboring farm. As things are, it is often quiet here. The only thing you can hear is the occasional piece of farm machinery or a car passing by. At its quietest, you will still hear the steady hum from the highway:
All the trucks that rush by at 70 miles an hour, 24 hours a day. Interstate 80, or I-80 as it is called in Stavanger, is located about mid-sized cornfield south of Stavanger. The highway is 2,899 miles long and stretches from San Francisco in California to Teaneck in New Jersey. It goes through or passes by big cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Reno, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Toledo.
And little Stavanger.
The pastor’s forgiveness
The church is the tallest building and a focal point, geographically speaking, but also a gathering place for the residents of Stavanger and the surrounding regions. “Velkommen” is seen on the sign outside, even if the church services are held in English. Norwegian is no longer used in the 140-year-old congregation.
“Today it’s emptier than usual here in the church. But that’s understandable. Our men are out in the fields bringing in the harvest,” says Pastor Phil W. Peterson. He stands in front of the congregation during the Sunday morning service.
Phil is from Texas and has been the pastor at the church for nearly 30 years. From the rectory to the side of the church, he has a good lookout on what is happening in the little place. He knows everyone, as if they are all one family. Perhaps not so strange, since he lived in Stavanger for a while when he was a little boy. At that time, his father was the pastor here.
The church service ends with a hymn. Behind the organ sits Robert Jackson. A few years ago, the 95-year-old celebrated 75 years as the church organist. He started when he was 16, and since then, he has been there most Sundays. Jokingly, he has said he will continue until he is 100. A few days ago, he had a dream that he, as a 100-year-old, was playing during the service.
“But I couldn’t walk properly, so Scott and Larry had to carry me in on the organ stool,” says Robert with a hearty chuckle.
This Sunday, Scott and Larry are out with the harvest. Usually, everything is planted during the month of April, but in 2019, Scott wasn’t finished until June; he had never planted so late. Now it is winter, and the corn has not yet been harvested. Tomorrow, the snow will come.
His friend Larry Peterson sits in the combine, controlling what looks more like a computer than a piece of farm machinery. Square foot after square foot, the corn plants are cut down, and the cobs disappear into the combine before only the corn kernels are left and the remains are spit out behind. Scott runs a shuttle between the fields and the silos. Now it’s about harvesting as much as possible before the snow comes. Right now, that it coincides with church service will just have to be. If the corn has to be brought in, then the corn has to be brought in.
Norwegian bunads and Christmas songs
Even if there are several churches in the area and the neighboring church is only three minutes away, the number of members in the congregation is growing. Some attend other churches, and some never attend a church service. But there is one Sunday evening each when the church is filled to the brim with people: the first Sunday in December. That is when the Scandinavian Christmas party, the Julefest, takes place.
“Oh, aren’t they cute in their bunads?” A woman looks at her husband with an inquisitive look on her face.
In Norway, they would most likely be called festdrakter—festive costumes—rather than bunads, but they are embroidered with Norwegian patterns. The girls are wearing them. With a shirt and a vest. The boys are wearing red sweaters. On this evening, they are going to do one of the most Norwegian things they know:
Sing “Jeg er så glad hver julekveld”—“I am so happy each Christmas Eve.”
Afterward, they are going to eat pastries. Lefse and kringle are waiting on the table, with Christmas cookies of different varieties. More than seven kinds.
The church is packed to the rafters this Sunday. People have come a long way to attend the Scandinavian Julefest. But traces of Denmark and Sweden are few. Here it’s mostly about Norway.
Stavanger Lutheran Church in Stavanger is only one of four churches in the United States with the name “Stavanger.” There are namely both Stavanger Free Lutheran Church and Stavanger Friends Church in Iowa and Stavanger Lutheran Church in Minnesota.
But outside the church, the “Velkommen” on the church’s sign is the only thing to remind you of Norway. No Norwegian flag, not a single sign or decoration. Yet if you travel around the area a little, you will find both Norwegian flags flying outdoors and several cemeteries with names that every Norwegian will recognize:
Thorsen, Bjelland, Larsen, Jelm, Helland, Hausken, Mogaard, Jensen, Torkelson, Hauge, Jorstad, Nodland, and Larsen.
Here some of the first Norwegians who came to the United States have been laid to rest. “The Sloopers,” as they are called.
On Oct. 9, 1825, 53 people landed in New York. They had been on board the sloop Restauration for 98 days. Soon it will be 200 years ago.
Will Norway disappear?
Cakes and Christmas cookies in all shapes are laid out on the long table. For some Norwegian Americans, these are that three varieties that are most appreciated. Crayton Chapman stands at the end of the table, looking with longing at the Christmas cookies before reaching out for one. Then he changes his mind, looks around, smiles, and walks away.
For many years, Crayton and his sister, Cora, were the only children in Stavanger. Now a mother with two children has moved into one of the houses, but the average age in Stavanger is going up and up. That is also happening in the congregation, but not so quickly. Here, there are many children attending the Sunday school. From 2015 on, the number of members in both the congregation and Sunday school have increased.
The Norwegian language long since died out in this region. True, they sing a Norwegian Christmas carol every year, and the adults know a word or two, as well as some Norwegian phrases. The last Norwegian church service was held in Stavanger in the 1970s.
How do you hold onto a culture that your ancestors imported almost 200 years ago? Few Norwegian Americans would argue that this is an easy task. Visiting the areas in the United States where immigration from Norway was the strongest is like traveling in a time machine. The society and the people are, of course, modern as elsewhere in the world, but much of the Norwegian culture there bears the stamp of being from the 19th century. In the meantime, Norwegian culture and language have developed back in Norway. Could that be why many Americans are disappointed when they visit Norway and can’t buy kringle and lefse on every street corner?
The young people rarely ask where their forebears came from or anything about the culture of their Norwegian ancestry. Often it is too late to ask: the Norwegian language and culture go to the grave as the older generation dies away. As a result, Stavanger and the surrounding area in Illinois are becoming a little less Norwegian as time goes by. Some work very hard to keep the traditions alive, but they are becoming fewer and fewer. What will happen when they, too, die?
And what about Stavanger? Stavanger is alive and well, and Norwegian roots will mark the small place in the middle of the farming country in America for a long, long time.
Even if no one no longer speaks Norwegian or can say anything about the people who stopped here at this little place to build up a future for themselves, motorists passing through will see a little sign that tells them that they have come to Stavanger.
Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall
All photos by Lars Idar Waage
The photo exhibit of Stavanger, Ill., will tour the United States in late 2023. and arrive at Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, in the summer or fall of 2024.
This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.