History Alive Project
Keeping traditions alive in Westby, Wis.
St. Paul, Minn.
Syttende Mai celebrations were dwindling across America before the pandemic hit. But not in Westby, Wis. Since 1969, the town of 2,400 residents comes together to honor its heritage with a multiple-day festival. Westby was settled by Norwegian immigrants, and the community’s tie to Norwegian culture is strong.
Despite the connection that many in Westby feel to their ancestry, two residents, Dave and Ruth Amundson found that the younger generations didn’t have quite the same understanding of the history. When speaking to students after church one day, the two realized that there was work to be done on sharing the cultural context of Syttende Mai beyond the annual tractor pull. So, the two decided to do something about it.
“We went home and spent the whole afternoon on the front porch thinking that this has got to change,” the Amundsons said.
It started in the schools. Dave and Ruth are retired science teachers and still have connections in the Westby school district. Since Dave already had a collection of historical photographs, the two decided to pitch a 90-minute presentation to one of the ninth-grade social studies classes. After the success of that first class, Dave and Ruth found themselves in two ninth-grade social studies classrooms, and their organization, the History Alive Project, was born. Once the duo began receiving donations for their work, they decided to form a 501(c)(3).
Ruth explained that they chose the name intentionally, because everything they do involves an active project, instead of focusing on names of “dead people and dates.” History Alive Project prioritizes engagement with students and what Ruth calls a “wow-activity.” “With ninth graders you have to have ‘wow!’” she said.
Even before starting the History Alive Project, Dave and Ruth were involved in Westby’s Syttende Mai Festival. Their main volunteer role? Hiding three trolls within Westby’s city limits, the Thursday night before May 17 and leaving clues as to their locations. The trolls all have names that Dave and Ruth chose from Norwegian language and mythology: Tann, Huldrah, and Runa. The competition has become extremely popular among students, but people of all ages participate in the troll hunt every year.
Another tradition that Dave and Ruth started was a field trip to Westby’s pioneer cemetery. Each October, they do a cemetery walk and identify the Norwegian “movers and shakers” who influenced their town. Every ninth grader is given a “history mystery name” at the beginning of the year. It’s up to them to piece together why this person was vital to Westby’s history.
But, out of all the activities that History Alive Project puts together each year, the most memorable and requested is the rømmegrøt (sour cream porridge) and klub (blood sausage) tasting that Dave and Ruth host for the ninth graders during the week of Syttende Mai. This really provides the “wow” and creates an even richer cultural context through food.
History Alive Project now operates out of a 1886-built home that they own in Westby (218 N. Main Street), where Dave and Ruth can store the historical photographs and project props they’ve collected. The organization shared their program with the school board and now provides 90-minute presentations every month to the ninth graders of Westby. “There are no seniors [who] have walked across the stage in Westby High School in the last seven years [who] have not had exposure once a month to a class, all during the school year. They know where the immigrant houses are, they know the names of movers and shakers in this community. They have been exposed to stories, so that they have a richer appreciation of how Westby was made and what happened in Norway before the immigrants came,” Ruth said.
The entire town is thrilled to be having their Syttende Mai celebrations once again, after a two-year hiatus during the pandemic. History Alive Project is sponsoring two special events with prominent guest speakers, Karen Rebholz, who will talk about her experience playing, designing, and repairing the traditional Hardanger fiddle, and Dana Kelly and Gary Swain, returning to speak about Norwegian-American genealogy.
Dave and Ruth show no signs of slowing down in their commitment to the students of Westby.
“We feel we have offered, to the community, that piece of Norwegian culture that they almost have to have so that they know we have more than just a tractor pull…We are trying very hard, in our group, to always concentrate on something that is really rich and really cool having to do with our history–our heritage!”
Westby Syttende Mai takes place on May 14 and May 15, 2022. You can find more at westbysyttendemai.com.
Photos courtesy of the History Alive Project
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.