Clapboard houses and Viking visions

Mystic Seaport provides a nautical Norway fix—with no trans-Atlantic flight required

Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum
Draken Harald Hårfagre is also wintering at Mystic Seaport this year.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Looking for a quick jaunt from the tri-state area? I strongly suggest quaint and serene Mystic, Conn., with its charming homes and laid back feel. One of the main attractions is the Mystic Seaport Museum, which has been gung-ho for Vikings in 2018.

The museum recently hosted two exhibits featuring Norsemen. The first, The Vikings Begin: Treasures from Uppsala University, Sweden, featured 7th-century artifacts from this prestigious university collection. Most items had never crossed the Atlantic. The second, Science, Myth, and Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga from the Yale University collection, was constructed around this controversial artifact and set in the time it was made public in 1965. Visitors entered a funky 1960s living room with Scandinavian furniture, a lava lamp, and on the shelves many tchotchkes depicting Columbus and Leif Eriksson.

But the museum’s year of the Vikings has not ended. The Draken Harald Hårfagre Viking longship, (the inspiration of Sigurd Aase), which was launched from Haugesund and sailed across the Atlantic making stops in Iceland, Greenland, and throughout the United States, has been docked at the museum since October 2016. Here it underwent repairs and raised funds for a 2018 East Coast Tour, which began in June, spanning the East Coast from Maine to South Carolina, reaching 14 harbors before returning to the museum in October 2018.

If this is not enough Viking mania, the museum also held its first Viking Days last June. Along with tours on the Draken, there was a Viking encampment with blade making, leather working, and Norse boat-building techniques. For the youngsters there were troll stories and a chance to create a toy Viking boat. What I found most fabulous was its planetarium’s participation with a show entitled “Stars of the Vikings,” a prime example of the museum’s attention to detail in providing creative programming.

The public response was so overwhelming that the museum intends to hold Viking Days again in 2019. Dan McFadden, director of communications, stated, “We created the event to complement The Vikings Begin exhibition.” I wondered whether the Viking Days would become an annual event. “That is the intention,” McFadden answered. “It was a very successful and popular event this year, and we would like to replicate that moving forward. We discovered a new audience for us that was very enthusiastic about both Scandinavian and maritime culture.”

The museum also has a remarkable sailing ship, c.1882, bearing the name Joseph Conrad, an apt moniker for this ship’s incarnations. It was actually constructed in Copenhagen as the Georg Stage and spans 111 feet. Although it cannot fail to awe, it was “one of the smallest full-rigged ships built in modern times … designed to accommodate 80 boys in training for the Danish merchant service,” according to the museum’s website. The ship sank in 1905, which resulted in the loss of 22 young sailors, but was raised and then decommissioned for 52 years. Over 4,000 cadets were trained on the ship during its lifetime. 

But once again the ship resurfaced on the seas when Alan Villiers bought it, renamed it Joseph Conrad, and circumnavigated the world on a 58,000-mile adventure. In 1936, it was transformed again under the ownership of George Huntington and competed in a race to Bermuda and back. In 1947, the ship arrived at its final destination at the museum, where it once again serves as a training ship.

Mystic Seaport Museum

In misty Mystic, you can see Gerda III, one of some 300 small ships that helped evacuate Jews from Denmark during WWII.

Another Scandinavian connection at the museum is a less impressive watercraft, a lighthouse tender named Gerda III (1926). Though diminutive in size, it is gigantic in significance. During WWII, led by 22-year-old Henny Sinding and four Danish crew members who between rescues carried on their lighthouse duties, the ship ferried Jews to safety. According to the museum’s website: “Although the vessel was regularly boarded and checked by German soldiers, the Jewish refugees were never discovered. The Gerda III rescued approximately 300 Jews in groups of 10 to 15.” This little dynamo was gifted to the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York City through an act instituted by the Danish Parliament. It is now docked and tended to by the museum.

After you visit Mystic Seaport Museum, please take time to check out the charming town of Mystic that delights with its clapboard homes, majestic trees, lush gardens, and mystical river. Clapboard is a style of architecture brought to the United States by Norwegian immigrants who arrived with the Dutch in the 1600s. Many homes have tasteful plaques that note the date it was built and the original owner’s name and profession.

Another sight to see is the picturesque Mystic River Bascule Bridge, which transports vehicles and pedestrians and opens for passing watercraft.   

The Whaler’s Inn comprises five historic buildings. In a great location on Main Street, it boasts many original architectural elements and nautical touches. And according to a local architect, a Norwegian recently purchased it.

Although not Norwegian owned, many folks will recognize the handicraft featured at Mystic Knotwork, nautical knots. This utilitarian craft was transformed into an art form by sailors, needing something to do on long journeys. One of the proprietors, who was working on a knot as shoppers browsed, explained that the family was inspired by the decorative knotwork done by her merchant marine grandfather. The family keeps his legacy alive by showcasing one of his elaborate works. With the same quality, the craft is perfected in this store that offers many items, including earrings, bracelets, wine stoppers, trivets, and ornaments.   

The perfect way to end your day is to watch the sun sink along the Mystic River Park, southeast of the bridge. Benches provide perfect seating to watch the show as townies and visitors gather. It’s a place where the visitor melts into the local vibe.

This article originally appeared in the January 11, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.