“Sons of old Norway owned the town”
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
“Norwegians Celebrated” ran the bold headline in the evening edition of the Fargo Forum dated May 17, 1904. Thousands of visitors from all over the region and Norway assembled in Fargo, N.D., to assist in the celebration of Syttende Mai and to attend the unveiling of the Bauta Sten (Honor Stone), the granite obelisk in honor of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Norway’s great poet and winner of the 1903 Nobel prize in Literature. The weather was splendid. The enthusiasm was palpable. A local journalist described the crowd as “the thrifty and sturdy emigrants from the land of the Vikings. Their enthusiasm today demonstrates how strong the fire of patriotism is within their hearts and how fond the memory of the fatherland.” The journalist also reported that the crowd, estimated from 8,000 to 10,000 people, was composed of “90 percent either former residents or their descendants.”
One man among the attendees, an earlier resident of North Dakota, fit the bill. O.S. (Ole Sigbjørnsen) Leeland, born April 26, 1870, on Liland farm in Tonstad Parish, Sirdal kommune, Vest Agder fylke, immigrated to America in 1887. By 1904 when he visited Fargo, Leeland’s residence was in South Dakota. Upon his arrival in America, Leeland had lived first with Olene, a married sister in Frankfort, Mich., working as a watchmaker in her husband’s shop. Then in 1891, he moved to Hillsboro, N.D., to work with brother Oscar in a new hotel venture.
A wild-western town originally settled by Norwegian pioneers, Hillsboro boomed thanks to the Northern Pacific Railroad and its 1864 government land grant. Promising a farmer’s paradise, Northern Pacific advertising pamphlets lured prospective homesteaders by offering cheap land and loans. This led to the Red River Valley Bonanza Farm movement, a short-lived mass-production enterprise of immense farm operations that attracted much publicity, as well as national attention, to North Dakota.
Eastern businessmen and speculators entered the market, doing much to build the local economy in the short term. After investors tapped the federal subsidies of the Northern Pacific, that is, once the scheme paid off, the Bonanza farms disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, leaving local farmers to pick up the pieces. Nonetheless, the Red River Valley became one of the more fertile wheat-farming regions in the county. And Hillsboro, the business nucleus for the Bonanza Farm movement, thrived, thanks to the railroad bringing people and goods to and from hundreds of isolated prairie communities.
In this flourishing business climate, saloons and hotels did a brisk business with homesteaders, traveling salesmen, and professionals. So when Oscar Leeland decided to open the Leeland House on North Main Street, his brother, probably with high financial expectations, left Michigan to help run the establishment.
Little is known of the hotel’s history except that, like the region’s Bonanza farms, it was short-lived. One small notice in Hillsboro’s Norwegian-language newspaper Statstidende (1899) recommends “Leeland House to those who would like to have a comfortable stay when in town. The price per night is only $1.00.”
By November 1901, shortly after Leeland’s arrival in South Dakota, he was advertising his photographic services in the nearby town’s newspaper, the Mt. Vernon News. Leeland most likely was self-taught and may have been introduced to the modern invention of photography while living in Hillsboro, home to two well-established photographers: Clarence E. Fuller (1869-1962) and fellow Norwegian, Jakob L. Skrivseth (1853-1934).
Like Leeland, Skrivseth was an immigrant who had moved from state to state, trying his hand at different occupations. According to The Fargo Record (January 1896), his Hillsboro studio was “without exception the best of its kind in the West.” One account proclaims that Skrivseth was the region’s most noted portrait photographer, producing more than 100,000 portraits from 1886 to 1902.
An outgoing personality, who served as Hillsboro’s mayor, Skrivseth, most importantly, spoke Norwegian. It seems plausible that Leeland, a naturally curious tinkerer, would be drawn to the newly popular invention of the camera and would find comradeship in his fellow countryman’s photography studio.
By 1904, Leeland owned a portrait studio in Mitchell, S.D. He also produced stereographs—referred to as stereo views, stereoscopic views, and stereo cards—stiff oblong mounts with twin photographs glued side by side that, when viewed through a device called a stereoscope or stereoscopic viewer, are seen as one image in 3-D space.
By 1859, stereo mania crossed the Atlantic and took hold in America. Stereoscopy, like later movies, television, and the computer, provided the ordinary person with inexpensive entertainment and an experience of a world beyond normal reach. Early photographic entrepreneurs, discovering a market for stereographs, worked vigorously to supply the demand. Publishers offered landscapes, scenes of contemporary events, series that told a humorous or sentimental story, and tours of the world. At one time, no American parlor was complete without a stereoscope and a nearby stack of stereographs.
Fast-forward to May 17, 1904. Why Leeland traveled to Fargo from his home in South Dakota, we will probably never know. There are no diaries, no handwritten records, no correspondence of any kind to tell us. Perhaps he went to visit brother Oscar. But on that day in Fargo, Leeland recorded with his camera a wondrous celebration of Syttende Mai.
The parade started at the Hotel Waldorf. Chief Marshal Dr. Paul Sorkness led the standard bearers, Fargo police department, North Dakota State Band, Gov. Frank White, Fargo and Moorhead city councils, Bauta Sten committee, speakers, Fargo and Moorhead press, Fargo Fire Department, Metropolitan Band of Hillsboro, Sons of Norway, Fargo High School students, Concordia College students, Aaker’s Business College students, and citizens in carriages and on foot.
Thousands of people, many in their native costumes from Norway and Sweden, lined the sidewalks to witness the scene. The throng was joined by hundreds of tourists, who arrived on special trains. Moving north on Broadway to 12th Avenue, the procession then turned west to the Agricultural College (today North Dakota State University) grounds, site of the obelisk.
From the turret on the front of the administration building, the U.S. and Norwegian flags hung side by side. Speakers and distinguished visitors were on the platform behind the obelisk. Around the base were grouped the Sons of Norway lodges from Fargo, Grand Forks, and Grafton. Several bands were stationed in an enclosure to the left of the speakers’ stand. American and Norwegian flags, banners, and streamers were carried, giving the scene “a picture of patriotism rarely witnessed.” Master of ceremonies Professor J.G. Halland eloquently welcomed the audience, who had come from all corners, and praised the work of the committee headed by Dr. Herman O. Fjelde of Abercrombie, N.D., whose “heart today was prouder and his love for the fatherland and for his adopted country was strong.”
Fjelde said, “This modest Bauta Sten, the first erected in our United States, is that kind of a monument our Viking forefathers erected to honor their heroes. The same is now done by us, their descendants, to honor the one who gave the new Norway their national song and other precious gifts, whereby our people are lifted in their own estimation as well as in other nations.”
Halland then introduced the Hon. John W. Aretander of Minneapolis, who gave the chief address. He began by saying that it was appropriate that the Bauta Sten be erected in North Dakota, because it was the center of “Norse yeomanry of the United States.” Further, he remarked, it was appropriate that the obelisk should be erected at the Agricultural College, because when they looked upon the stone it would remind those who came to seek a future in agriculture that it was nothing to be ashamed of “to be a peasant or a yeoman.”
College President John Worst spoke and began by saying that this was, to him, a unique occasion. It was the first of its kind in the history of the state, if not in the United States. He could not view Bjørnson as a citizen of Norway alone but rather as a citizen of the world. “The dedication of this monolith today is but the initial step looking towards the establishment of a general museum of educational material in connection with the Agricultural College, illustrative of Norwegian antiquity and Norwegian history. It is not the design by those means to foster a feeling of nationality but rather to broaden Americanism.” And so, it afforded him great pleasure on behalf of the Agricultural College to accept the monolith from the committee and to assure it that the Bauta Sten erected on the site of the college shall ever hold the honored position assigned to it. Amid the great applause that followed, the North Dakota State Band burst forth with the opening bar of “America,” the cue for people to sing. So impressive was the response that many people could not restrain their feelings at the great exhibit of true patriotism and many were seen to remove tears from their eyes with their handkerchiefs. Then Gov. White spoke, and the Agricultural College cadets fired a salute of five volleys.
Helga Trovaten, a young Norwegian girl, pulled the ropes and released the Norwegian tri-colors that had concealed the obelisk. The Bauta Sten was now in full view of the thousands of curious eyes. The audience clapped and clapped with great enthusiasm. To the accompaniment of the North Dakota State Band, the audience sang the Norwegian national anthem “with feeling and patriotic expression.” Among the enthusiastic visitors was editor John Blauw of the Tacoma Tidende, a Norwegian newspaper with a 60,000 circulation in Washington, and Alfred Andresen, manager of Alfred Andresen & Co., Minneapolis, importers of Scandinavian goods. About 30 members of the Norwegian Danish National Press Association participated, as did Halfdan Bendeke, Swedish and Norwegian vice consul for North Dakota. With elaborate Norwegian-themed window displays, even Fargo’s retail stores joined with the entire town to commemorate the event.
The highlight of the festivities was a “Norwegian peasant wedding ceremony according to the customs prevailing two centuries ago” between Sigurd Sajellerud and Marie Simenson, both residents of Abercrombie. The ceremony was held in the armory and even that huge building was much too small to accommodate the guests who desired to witness the unique rites, notwithstanding the fact that an admission fee had to be charged as the only method of controlling the thousands who desired to gain admission. The great building was decorated with multiple flags of the fatherland; liberally intertwined among them were the stars and stripes. Everything about the nuptial ceremony was ecclesiastically correct. The improvised altar was placed in the east, the ceremony following closely the ritual of the Norwegian Lutheran Church. Rev. A.O. Fonkalsrud, pastor of the First Norwegian Lutheran Church in Fargo, read the Norwegian-language service. Eivind Aakhus, noted violinist, played the Norwegian wedding march. The bride wearing a silver crown bedecked with precious stones and bangles and the groom attired in knee breeches of red, white stockings, and red waistcoat over white shirt, profusely decorated with the Norwegian colors and having a sash of the same, were followed by bridesmaids in bunads and male attendants in traditional dress. Arriving at the altar, the bride and groom sat immediately in front and in seats behind were the bridal attendants, prominent among whom was Fjelde, who acted as best man. Norrøna, a male choir, splendidly rendered a wedding song. It is interesting to note that the bride was formerly a member of the Bjørnson household in the poet’s home in Norway, and the groom was also from that region.The next day was a celebration called the Skaal wedding in which a bowl plays an important role. There was much music. Kari Rudi (1845-1916), one of Norway’s star langeleik (droned zither) players, traveled from her home in Valdres. Violinists Hans Rygh of Joice, Iowa; Mr. Overbo of Wahpeton, N.D.; and Aakaus played so dramatically that a number of older Norwegians had tears streaming down their cheeks.
And so what some have written was the “greatest and most important 17 de mai celebration held in America” came to an end. The Bjørnson obelisk still stands on the campus of the North Dakota State University, although not much attention is paid to the monument on campus these days. However, during his 1939 trip to America, then-Crown Prince Olav of Norway, visited it.
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. She is currently working on Enorme Amerika: Norske utvandreres postkort, humor og rariteter to be published by SpreDet Forlag in Oslo and is completing a manuscript on O.S. Leeland, Norwegian immigrant photographer who worked in South Dakota in the early 1900s. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 4, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.