An impossible road trip
Visit Nordic roadside attractions across the United States
Ever since living in Norway, I’ve realized that the United States may not have many centuries-old architectural masterpieces, but America is full of bizarre roadside attractions that leave visiting Norwegians scratching their heads. I’ve researched and snapped photos of every attraction I’ve seen along the roadside to compile the inevitably incomplete The Impossible Road Trip and noticed a surprisingly high percentage of “Norwegian” sites.
“You’re far more Norwegian in Minnesota than we are in Norway, because we don’t have to prove that we’re Norwegian,” my friend Knut Bull in Oslo told me. I’ve seen groups of Norwegian tourists visiting Scandinavian sites in “Norway’s colonies in America.” I’ve cherry-picked some of the highlights here, so you never need to leave the United States to visit Norway.
With all the Viking statues around the country, one could be excused from believing that these Nordic berserkers established cities across our fair land. Big Ole spreads this myth with his shield proclaiming, “Alexandria, Birthplace of America” in central Minnesota. Easily the most impressive Viking statue in the state, Ole stands 28 feet tall and debuted at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York at the Minnesota pavilion. The four-ton statue came back to Minnesota and was stationed outside the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, just past Viking Plaza, Vikingland Books, the Viking Motel, and Viking Savings Bank. For Christmas two years later, a giant Santa suit was stitched for Big Ole, but a jokester shot a flaming arrow to see how tough the big Viking really was. Santa’s suit burst into flames to the horror of youngsters eager for gifts–imagine the call to the fire station! The $3,000 repair job was just the beginning, as Big Ole has been beaten up by straight-line winds and brutal winters.
Not to be outdone, Spring Grove, Minn., raised its own statue to secure its claim as the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota. The 15-foot-tall Viking has his sword drawn and the disconcerting two-colored eyes let visitors know he’s been on the Plains too long.
In 1949, St. Paul, Minn., raised a statue of Leif Erikson next to the Capitol as though he were one of the state’s founders. About 5,000 people showed up along with the president of the United States for the unveiling and to read the plaque at the base: “Leif Erikson, Discoverer of America, 1000 A.D.” The sculptor, John Karl Daniels strangely put a cross around Leif’s neck, even though Leif didn’t convert to Christianity until he returned from Vinland.
Seattle raised a statue to Leif Erikson and presented an identical one to Trondheim, Norway. The Norwegians graciously accepted the gift, but then relegated it out to the port rather than the center of town.
Across the Midwest, other Viking statues dot the landscape as proof of the Scandinavian settlements. Little Gimli on giant Lake Winnipeg has a 15-foot statue of a noble-looking Viking with horns in honor of the Icelandic immigrants there. Bangor, Mich., on the Lower Peninsula has a Viking mascot (that holds a “Viking Carpet” shield supposedly from a floor store in Marshfield, Wis.) next to the scoreboard at the high school to root for the home team.
Early Scandinavian immigrants to the Red River Valley around Fargo, N.D., raised a statue to Rollo the Grandeur and tried to rename the area “New Normandy” after this Norwegian-Danish Viking who conquered northern France and named it Normandy. Also known as Rolf the Walker, Rollo was too squat and plump for a horse. Rollo and his Norse compatriots pillaged Paris until King Charles the Simple defeated him at the Battle of Chartres in 911. King Charles, the not-so-simple, deduced he could use Rollo as a buffer against further raids from the Vikings and ceded to him a small part of Normandy, also called Terra Normannorum, land of the Norsemen in Latin. Visit the statue in Fargo and remember that Rollo’s descendant continued the land-grabbing tradition during an invasion of England in 1066 as William the Conqueror.
Come home, Hjemkomst!
Besides just the Viking statues, their ships have somehow found our shores, because who can confirm that Viking explorers didn’t set foot beyond Newfoundland all the way to the middle of the United States? The quest began in a shipyard at Sandefjord, Norway, in 1892 with a replica of the Gokstad ship to sail to the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago to prove that Vikings could have made it here. The 78-foot-long ship crossed the Atlantic and went up the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and Chicago’s Navy Pier to thousands of amazed—if unconvinced—festival goers that Scandinavians beat Christopher Columbus to America. The ship is now housed just west of Chicago at Geneva, Ill.
To honor Norse ancestors, many other Viking ship lookalikes dot the Midwestern landscape. Hollandale, Wis., has a clay skiff in a “Historical Backyard” covered with mosaics by self-taught sculptor Engelbert Kolethick with a Viking atop to honor the ancestry of his wife and the prevalent Scandinavian community in southwestern Wisconsin. Very Norwegian and landlocked Spring Grove, Minn., has a Viking ship float that drifts through the town’s Syttende Mai parade. Further east, Philadelphia’s Leif Ericson Society International built the Norseman Viking ship to sail on the Schuylkill River and is “Honoring America’s First Hero.”
In 1926, a similar ship, a 42-foot-long “Viking-inspired” longboat set sail from Bergen, Norway, to Labrador in Canada and through the Great Lakes to Duluth, Minn. For years, the ship was put in dry dock in Duluth’s Leif Erikson Park for landlubbers to admire, but the elements took their toll. Plans are afoot to show off the boat in a glassed-in enclosure at the park along Lake Superior.
One of the most impressive replica Viking ships, though, is the Hjemkomst (homecoming) ship built by Robert Asp, a former guidance counselor at Moorhead Junior High School in Minnesota, with a menacing dragon carved from wood on the prow. In an old potato warehouse in Hawley, Minn., Asp reconstructed this Gokstad-style ship that he finished in 1980. Soon after the ship’s first voyage on Lake Superior, Asp tragically died of leukemia. In his honor, Asp’s friends and family set sail from Duluth on a 6,100-mile voyage back to Bergen, Norway. Five-hundred miles from New York, a vicious storm caused a crack in the hull that stretched nearly 14 feet. The crew kept on and completed the 72-day voyage and arrived in Norway to much fanfare. The Hjemkomst has returned home to the flat plains of the Red River Valley and is housed at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.
Upside down Viking boats with dragon heads and crosses
When Vikings realized the error in their ways of razing towns, burning monasteries, and plundering any booty, they became born again and partook in the body of Christ. Saint Olaf gave his wayward Norse compatriots little choice but to attend a stave church and join the legions of Jesus or else he’d have their heads.
Both Christian crosses and Viking symbols decorate these churches, so these are the perfect representation for modern Norwegian Americans since they show both their Norse heritage and Lutheran identity, never mind that these churches were built hundreds of years before Martin Luther.
Usually these nail-less churches were perched at the bottom of a rocky mountain next to a fjord. Rapid City, S.D.’s stave church, however, is at the end of a long suburban development and on the edge of the pristine forests of the Black Hills. This “Chapel in the Hills” is based on the Borgund Church in Lærdal from 1150 A.D. The builders of South Dakota’s church skipped slapping on the layers of pungent tar that their Norwegian counterparts did and opted for a modern touch of a continuous tape loop of Lutheran hymns for nonstop piety.
While the Rapid City stave church was built in 1969 and has an estimated 80,000 people visit every year, other stave churches have popped up around the Midwest. Hjemkomst Heritage Center in Moorhead boasts a replica of the Hopperstad Church in the town of Vik in the Sogn and Fjordane region of Norway. The Scandinavian Heritage Center in Minot, N.D., has a stave church that is visited by thousands of visitors during the annual Høstfest. The peninsula of Door County, Wis., has two stave churches in one of the most Norwegian-like spots in the state: remote Washington Island.
Another replica stave church disappeared from Wisconsin in 2012 and reappeared in another country. Along with the Viking ship to protest the naming of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in honor of Columbus, Norwegians shipped over a replica stave church built in Orkanger. After the festival, the church became a cinema and then moved to Little Norway, Wisconsin. When this living museum shut down, Norwegian carpenters from Orkanger disassembled the church to bring it home and restore it after 120 years.
Newport Tower in Newport, R.I.
Norse mooring stones, runestones, and other supposed Scandinavian artifacts dating to the late 1300s dot the landscape of the northern United States. Whether one confirms they are authentic often depends upon the nationality of the archaeologist. For example, one of the oldest intact buildings on the eastern seaboard in Newport, R.I., had been deemed a “Viking Tower” by Scandinavian historians. Danish
archaeologist Carl Christian Rafn declared the tower a Norse baptistery or a round church tower built by Viking settlers in the 11th or 12th centuries when they came to “Vinland,” apparently Rhode Island in this telling.
Scandinavian supporter Hjalmar Holand concluded that this tower was built later, “by the royal expedition of 1355-1364,” of post-Viking-era adventurers led by Paul Knutson, who supposedly left the Kensington Runestone in central Minnesota. He disparaged later Spanish-sponsored expeditions in his book Explorations in America before Columbus and extoled the superiority of the Scandinavians, writing, “When Columbus started on his westward journey to Cathay, he was accompanied by so many untrained hotheads and jailbirds that his plans for a peaceful conquest were irreparably wrecked, and Spanish affairs in Haiti became one of the worst muddles in history. In contrast, the men of the Paul Knutson expedition were probably as carefully selected as were ever the members of any exploring expedition.”
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who never hesitated to distort historical accuracy to make a good story, waxed poetic about the Newport Tower and a supposed Viking tomb found in Fall River, Mass., in 1832. In his poem, “The Skeleton in Armor,” he mused, “I was a Viking old!/My deeds, though manifold… There for my lady’s bower/Built I the lofty tower,/Which, to this very hour,/Stands looking seaward.”
Too bad that excavations at the site in 1948 showed that the tower was likely built in the mid-17th century, probably in 1653 by Benedict Arnold, who was governor of the Rhode Island Colony. “Not so!” argues author W. R. Anderson, who points out in his Norse America book saying that the tower “was already in existence in 1632, being mentioned in the so-called Plowden Paper of that date, which includes reference to a ‘rowed stone towre’… [and] is clearly depicted in the well-known world map of Mercator drawn in 1569—six decades before the first colonist.”
Despite some saying the Newport Tower is the work of the Portuguese, Chinese, or even the Knights Templar, the unavoidable architectural replica are the nearly identical six-arched, 17th-century windmills in central England. Whatever the stories, these are great sites full of mystery and heroic tall tales, just like the Sagas.
All photos courtesy of Eric Dregni unless otherwise noted.
This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.