Characters among us
Stories of the “Han Ola og han Per” comic
Christy Olsen Field
So who are those characters that are on page seven? It’s a question we get on a regular basis. With an unusual mix of English and Dano-Norwegian dialects, Ola and Per are a slapstick Norwegian-American comedy routine. Their place in the op-ed section of the newspaper is more than provide levity to an otherwise serious page – it is an anchor to continuing our rich heritage as the only Norwegian-American newspaper in existence.
In a different vein than the more famous Ole and Lena duo, “Han Ola og han Per” illustrates the Upper Midwest humor of Norwegian immigrant life in America. From 1918 to 1935, farmer-artist-turned-cartoonist Peter Julius Rosendahl created more than 700 comic strips for Decorah-Posten in Iowa, one of the largest Norwegian-American newspapers in the early 20th century. Decorah-Posten is a direct predecessor of the Norwegian American Weekly, and was acquired in 1972 by the Western Viking.
Peter Rosendahl was born to Norwegian immigrants in 1878 in Spring Grove, Minn., the earliest Norwegian settlement in the state. His father, Paul Rosendahl, was born in Hadeland, Norway, and immigrated to Spring Grove in the 1850s. He was a pioneer farmer who served in the Civil War and later became a state legislator. Peter’s brother, Carl, was a professor of botany at the University of Minnesota. Peter lived his adult life on a farm in Spring Grove, and explored his artistic side with poetry and lyrics, painting, sketching and more. A quiet, modest man, he married Otelia Melbraaten – a second-generation Norwegian-American with roots in Hallingdal – and they were the parents of four children.
Drawing cartoons came later in life for Rosendahl. He did not complete high school, but had a thirst for learning, which he satisfied by reading and correspondence classes. At the age of 33, he received a certificate in machine and electrical engineering. When he was 41, he enrolled in the Federal School of Applied Cartooning at Minneapolis during the years. “Han Ola og Han Per” made their debut in 1918.
Rosendahl did not travel, but he had a vivid imagination and creative ability, which he used to put his characters in preposterous situations and wild adventures. During the summers, when he was busy at the farm, his cartoon characters took a break until the fall, which prompted readers to write and demand the comic’s return. In 1935, Rosendahl turned down further offers for new strips, so the newspaper began to publish reruns.
There are several main characters who appear on a regular basis. Per, the head of the household, is tall with a beard and wears a tail coat and plug hat. He is easily excitable and reacts dramatically to most situations. His dialect is from Hadeland.
Per is married to Polla, a short and stocky woman from Fargo, N.D. She is the only character to show change in weight and style. Her speech also transitions from the old Dano-Norwegian to Americanized Norwegian. Dada is the daughter of Per and Polla, making her first appearance in 1926. She grows older as the time (and series) goes by.
Vermoor, which means mother-in-law is Polla’s mother. She is a tough, industrious pioneer woman, frequently shown with a tool of some kind. Ola is Per’s neighbor and friend. He is always shown without a hat and dressed as a typical farmer. In contrast to his high-strung friend, Ola is more easy going, and laughs, sings and whistles regularly. He is also a big ignorant, especially when it comes to machinery.
Lars is Per’s older brother, and a newcomer from Norway. Although well-educated, he fumbles his way through adjusting to cultural life in America. He has a long beard and is often pictured with a jug of moonshine. He is also romantically inclined with Vermoor.
Norwegian-American organization Hadelandlag writes, “Today ‘Han Ola og han Per’ is significant because it illustrates the traditional primary values of humor: as entertainment, for anyone able to read ‘Spring Grove Norwegian,’ which is discussed in Norwegian-American historian Einar Haugen’s essay on the language; as literary and graphic artistry; and as history, with predominant folklore elements, which reflects mainly an immigrant society’s pains and difficulties of adapting to mainstream America with its rapidly changing customs and attitudes. The artist described the roles played by Ola and Per in helping to lighten the burden in their ‘Western Home.’”
Today, the spirit of “Han Ola og han Per” lives on not just on the pages of the Norwegian American Weekly, but in Spring Grove, Minn. In 2002, bronze sculptures of Ola and Per were installed at Viking Memorial Park by Craig Bersgaard, a sculptor and artist who grew up in in Spring Grove. Bergsgaard was commissioned a few years earlier for a sculpture of a Viking called “Quest” to honor the Scandinavian pioneers in the Midwest.
“After ‘Quest’ was finished, it was such a great partnership that we didn’t want it to end. We wanted to honor the creativity of Peter Rosendahl, and honor the work of Craig as a sculptor, so we gathered the funds to have him do a sculpture of Ola and Per,” said Karen Gray, longtime resident of Spring Grove and chairperson of the Ola and Per Committee.
“It took about a year and a half from concept to installation. It’s still the hardest piece I have ever done. Ola and Per were drawn in two-dimensional drawings, and I had to create a three-dimensional sculpture,” said Bergsgaard.
He traveled to Spring Grove to meet with the committee, and then several members visited Bergsgaard’s studio in Colorado to see the finished pieces before they were bronzed. One of the members of the delegation was Georgia Rosendahl, the daughter-in-law of Peter Rosendahl and local Spring Grove historian.
“I wanted to make sure the Rosendahls were happy with the finished pieces,” said Bergsgaard.
To celebrate, the Committee planned a day-long festival, inviting Norwegian lodges and organizations in the area to participate. They also invited authors who had written about Spring Grove to come for book signings.
The turnout was far higher than expected – approximately 1,200 people attended the festival, stretching the capacity of restaurants and local businesses in the town of 1,300 people.
Today, Ola and Per stand tall in the center of town, reminding Spring Grove residents of the lasting influence of Norwegian-American heritage.
“Spring Grove is quite a Norwegian community. When I moved here in 1965, you heard Norwegians spoken at the post office and on the street,” said Gray. “We honor the culture and traditions of Norway, and Ola and Per were very important in the immigrants’ lives and socialization that they had to assimilate into their daily life.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 19, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.