Destination: Norsk Høstfest in Minot, ND

Experience the music, arts & crafts, and culinary delights of five Nordic countries in a day

Norsk Høstfest

Photo courtesy of Leif Holmes
Leif & Sunnie Accordion Duo in their natural habitat at Norsk Høstfest, on the Hygge stage.

Sunnie Sundquist
Mt. Vernon, Wash.

Pure Scandimonium! An appropriate theme for Norsk Høstfest, celebrating 42 years. Visually, the enormous barns devoted to the North Dakota State Fair in July are knockouts as we encounter each of the halls, festooned with grand colorful pennants and countries’ flags, transformed into Oslo Hall, Stockholm Hall, Copenhagen Hall, Reykjavik Hall, and Helsinki Hall, named for capital cities of five Nordic countries. Each hall celebrates the country’s myriad arts and culinary achievements. And the centerpiece, Great Hall of the Vikings arena, where last year we delighted in Irish tenor Daniel O’Donnell’s opening night performance. O’Donnell, inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame and recipient of the Høstfest Humanitarian Award, ceremoniously began his concert with the haunting sound of a long, hand-carved lur, a musical instrument known since Viking times.

Minnen, memories linger of North America’s largest Scandinavian festival. Music and food define Nordic culture, and there is no lack of culinary delights or bands and non-stop entertainment within the five halls, where a dozen stages feature a variety of outstanding performers every hour from 7.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. “Pure Scandimonium” is the theme and the tenor.

It was a privilege and honor for Leif & Sunnie Accordion Duo to be invited, one of few musical groups to bring traditional old Nordic folk tunes to the Scandinavian festival, songs our ancestors brought to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and early 20th century and played at grange dances, picnics, and family celebrations.

Twice a day Leif & Sunnie toted our accordions to the Hygge Stage in Copenhagen Hall, and the audiences responded, singing along to “Nidelven” and “Hälsa dem därhemma.” A beautiful soprano joined us on stage to sing “Dansen på Måkeskjaer.” And our accordions responded, as couples in festive costumes twirled on the floor in front of us to Scandinavian dance music—polka, vals, schottis, reinlender, hambo, snoa, and a lovely Emma’s valssi. Inspiring, as well, was the freshly made apple and lingonberry pie at the Pie Place, adjacent to our assigned stage!

Norsk Høstfest

Photo courtesy of Leif Holmes
It doesn’t get much more Norwegian than this! Everywhere you look, art, wood carvings, and of course flags transform the N.D. Fairgrounds into a Nordic wonderland.

Between our eight morning and evening performances on Hygge Stage, we managed to catch a variety of great entertainers: Mollie B. and Ted Lange’s accordion on Oslo stage with their unmatched polka music, Neil Diamond Tribute Show and the outstanding Medora Gospel celebration on Copenhagen stage, Skålmusik and Jenta O’Ja on the Scandia Stage, popular country western bands and young, talented Daniel Starks on Troll’s pulpit overlooking the crowded hallway. Høstfest Accordion Band, 57 accordionists who come together each year, serenaded on Skien stage on the mezzanine. They concluded their performance with a standing audience singing a rousing “God Bless America!” Festival performances evoke a feeling of pride in our homeland countries and pride that we are part of this extraordinary gathering in the heartland of America.

How did we get invited? Speculation conjures up a story: “You should play at Norsk Høstfest,” was a casual comment overheard at Fritjov Lodge meeting. Sharron Knutson was on it: “I have a contact for you in Minot. She is in charge of music for Høstfest.” I requested submission information for 2018 and received no response. That is how it began, and that is where I thought it ended.

A year later, in Spring 2018, I was on the mower at Sundquist Farm*Gården when I checked email: “Please provide your phone number. I would like to speak with you about Norsk Høstfest!”

I responded, “I’m farming today. You can reach me after five on my landline or on my cell.” I forgot to put in cell number, so I sent another message and started the mower. Within minutes, I felt my phone vibrate. Yes, an invitation to play at Norsk Høstfest in Minot, N.D., the largest Scandinavian festival in North America. I screamed my joy over the farmland and called Leif.

There may be a half million descendants of Nordic emigrants in North Dakota, and as the story goes, the Norsk autumn festival was established decades ago to keep all those of Scandinavian heritage happy—and to keep them in North Dakota. The results are in: you will not find a happier group of volunteers, testament to the training of over 4,000 festival volunteers from Minot and neighboring towns and to friendly North Dakotans. One evening as we returned to our hotel, two young men parked next to us, exited their vehicle, and validated our thinking: “Have you ever been anywhere in the United States where people are this friendly and welcoming?”

We were greeted at every turn; smiling ladies greeted us at the airport near midnight; smiling men and women served up truly homecooked meals in the performers’ hospitality room; and our new best friend, having by chance returned my earlier telephone message while we’re lost in Minot, stayed on the line with us as we identified landmark buildings, right until we walked into the lobby of the grand arena where we were greeted with hugs.

We were privileged to perform at Norsk Høstfest and to bring to this magnificent Scandinavian event the old traditional tunes our ancestors brought with them. A couple of our songs I found in farmor’s piano bench and a few we discovered in our research of Music Archives at Nordic Museum in Seattle. We are dedicated to keeping those songs alive for the next generation of Scandinavian Americans. Norsk Høstfest is testimony to that goal.

We always close our stage performances with an old Swedish folk tune, “O Store Gud.” Gustav Boberg, in around 1885, wrote poetic words describing the wonders of nature after a night filled with rain, thunder, lightning, and a morning rainbow. Years later, he heard people singing the words of his poem “O Store Gud” set to a folk melody similar to “How Great Thou Art,” a beautiful, moving song that we heard several times at the festival, most notably sung by Daniel O’Donnell.

Visit the official Norsk Høstfest website at hostfest.com.

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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