Hjemkomst opens up a new world of learning

Finding home through a unique museum experience


Photo: Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County
At the center of the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minn., is a life-size replica of the famous Gokstad Viking longship, which stands as a testimony to the region’s strong ties to Norway.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County (HCSCC), Minn., has the mission to collect, preserve, interpret, and share the history and culture of Clay County. Located in Moorhead, its main purpose is telling community stories.

In the July/August 2023 issue of Museum Magazine, published by the American Alliance of Museums, Laura Lott, outgoing president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, writes about “collaborative programs that not only make a difference in children’s lives, but contribute to more equitable outcomes for our society.”

Photo: Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County
On the grounds of the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minn., you will find a replica of the Hopperstad Stave Church, one of only four life-size stave churches in the United States.

HCSCC is doing this work with thoughtful, collaborative programs, and meaningful collections. The museum in the City of Moorhead’s Hjemkomst Center includes two major Viking replicas, the Hjemkomst Viking Ship and Moorhead’s Hopperstad Stave Church, along with two important early buildings, as well as exhibitions, lectures, and festivals that invite the entire community and school programming where effective opportunity for museum education lies.

Moorhead, the largest city in northwest Minnesota, is situated in the agriculturally rich Red River Valley. The city adjoins the Red River, which flows northward into Manitoba, Canada, and forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota.

As a landlocked portion of the Upper Midwest, it certainly doesn’t conjure up images of ships and the open sea. However, many ancestors of today’s residents were seafaring people.

The Viking heritage—and dream

Vikings ruled the Northern European seas from the eighth through the 11th centuries. They traveled, explored, and traded far and wide, and settled in lands as distant as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Essential to their commanding influence was the longship, a vessel adapted for both sailing the high seas and navigating shallow rivers. Because of this maritime invention, the Vikings left their mark on a wide swath of the world.

In 1971, Viking descendant Robert Asp decided that he would return to the sea. This Moorhead Junior High School guidance counselor had a dream of building a Viking ship. While recovering from injuries of a severe fall, he studied his Norwegian heritage and discovered the story of the Gokstad burial ship, which had been unearthed from a burial mound near Sandefjord, Norway, in 1880.

Visitors to the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minn., are greeted by the flags of the Nordic countries. The cultural center offers a unique educational opportunity for those wishing to learn about the Nordic immigration to the Red River Valley in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Asp then decided the he would build a Viking ship modeled after the Gokstad ship. He would name it the Hjemkomst (meaning “homecoming”) as a way to honor his ancestors, and he would sail it to Norway. It seemed an unattainable and impossible dream—just a dream.

He estimated it would take two years and 50 of the necessary flexible white oak trees that he found on Maynard Gulbranson’s farm, north of East Grand Forks, N. D. These woods served as the main source of lumber, some of which was also donated by friends and family.

In the end, it took more than 100 trees and seven years. He built the ship in an old potato warehouse in nearby Hawley, Minn. When the ship was completed in 1980, the wall of the building had to be torn down to remove the ship.

After the ship made it to the street, a crane picked it up and turned it so the moving process could be completed. Hannah Foldoe, Asp’s mother-in-law and a Norwegian immigrant, had the honor of christening the Hjemkomst on July 20, 1980. The ceremony was part of a three-day “Viking Ship Days” celebration held in Hawley, during which money was raised for the upcoming voyage.

It was then transported to Duluth harbor in August, where Asp sailed it for the first and last time. After he died of leukemia in December 1980, his wife and children saw his dream to fruition by raising the funds to hire crew to sail the ship from Duluth, through New York’s canal system to the Hudson River and down to New York harbor.

The crew set sail. A few days out to sea, they were hit by a massive storm that split the hull. Although repaired, it still leaked so the crew bailed water all the way to Norway. and finally landed in Bergen, a voyage of about six weeks. The ship stayed in Norway while the museum was being built, and then it returned on a freighter.

The Hjemkomst Center exhibit

Visitors today view an exhibit that was installed last year for the 40th anniversary of the voyage. There is also a video on the ship’s construction and sailing with the crew reminiscing in 2012, some 30 years later.  You can access a 1980s video on YouTube entitled “The Hjemkomst of Robert Asp.”

It’s a wonderful inspiring narrative depicting an ordinary person who performed an extraordinary act. And with the love and determination of family and friends, after Asp’s death, the impossible dream became reality. It’s a story about American grit and community determination that today encourages hope to everyone, young and old.


On display at the Hjemkomst Center is a selection of Hardanger fiddles. The tradition of Norway’s national instrument in the area is a strong one through this day, with fiddles still being made there.

Outside in Viking Ship Park, the Hopperstad Stave Church, one of only four life-size stave churches in the United States, is a full-scale replica of the Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik, Norway. Stave churches were built in and around Scandinavia using the technique of vertical posts or staves (staver in Norwegian are poles.) to construct massive buildings in the waning years of the Viking Age. In Norway, there was a tradition of using wood in artwork and construction leading to the development of a unique technique. The decoration is a mix of both Christian and Viking symbolism.

Built between 1996 and 2001, this replica stands as a testament to Norwegian culture and heritage in the Midwest and serves as a useful educational tool for the local community, particularly in understanding the culture of Nordic immigrants who moved into the Red River Valley in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Conversion to Christianity in Norway was by royal decree at the end of the Viking Age. However, many Norwegians continued to practice a traditional pagan religion that recognized sacred sites in nature. Stave churches blended old and new, pagan and a Catholic, medieval basilica-style church with a traditional Scandinavian log building. Dragons, pagan guards against evil, were part of the ornamental structure of this type of church considered among the more important examples of wooden medieval architecture in Europe. During the Middle Ages, there were probably more than 1,000 examples in Norway, but today only 28 stave churches remain.

Gaylor “Guy” Paulson was born in 1937 in Haakon County, S.D. His paternal grandfather, Jens Paulson, emigrated from Norway with his family in 1904 to farm the South Dakota prairie. Paulson worked for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture based in Fargo, N.D., and after retirement, he looked for a project. Years earlier, he had seen a replica stave church in South Dakota. The memory inspired him and an idea took shape that used his years of woodcarving. Paulson and his wife agreed that it was a way to give back to the Fargo-Moorhead community.

stave church

Inside the Hopperstad Stave Church at the Hjemkomst Center, visitors are transported back to medieval Norway. Stave churches were built in and around Scandinavia using the technique of vertical posts or staves. These churches contain a blend of pagan and Christian elements.

His family helped with the construction, and family friend Dale Ruff, an architect in Moorhead, donated work of his architecture firm to build the main structure. The team took several trips to Norway to study the original building.

It was decided in June 1996 that the church would have a home at the Hjemkomst Center since the Hjemkomst Viking ship had partially inspired the church project. After the decision, Paulson began the ornate carvings that would decorate the interior and exterior of the church. Pine trees provided material. In total, five and a half years went into the construction.

The church is 72 feet high with 18 staves, each standing 27 feet tall. The main structure is pine from Minnesota, with the portal carving done in redwood; 24,000 Michigan cedar shingles adorn its roof. Although modern construction methods and tools were used, Paulson produced all the carvings by hand. And since its dedication, the replica has been used for tours, weddings, and other community events. Today, the church is owned by the City of Moorhead and interpreted by the HCSCC.

Yet, in spite of these two very large artifacts, the Hjemkomst Center is not a purely Scandinavian heritage facility. On two lower levels of the museum there are changing local history and art exhibits.

As Executive Director Maureen Kelly Jonason explains, “We consider our entire museum an educational facility. About 1,500 elementary school children a year come here as class groups. High-schoolers and college students also come. Classes in medieval history benefit from a visit. Most recently, and perhaps uniquely, students in digital humanities from Grinnell College in Iowa traveled here with their professor to examine the ship and go through our archives. Their project is to create a virtual-reality experience of being on the Gokstad, the Viking burial ship on which our ship was based.”


A view of Moorhead’s Hjemkomst Center at sunset shows off the natural beauty of its setting in the Red River Valley, one of the more fertile farmland areas in North America.

Other Scandinavian structures

HCSCC also manages the Comstock House, a historic Victorian mansion in south Moorhead that once belonged to Solomon Comstock, a prominent member of the business community and legislator, and his family. Built in the early 1880s, the two-story home blends Queen Anne elements with those of English designer Charles Locke Eastlake. The house, open for tours, has been restored back to its 1883 appearance.

The Bergquist Cabin, constructed in 1871 by Swedish immigrant John Gustav Bergquist, is the oldest house in Moorhead on its original frontier site. Bergquist cut the trees on the other side of the Red River and skidded the logs across the frozen water. He farmed and supplemented his income working on the railroad and selling milk door to door. He later started brickyards and became prosperous. In 1883, he sold the cabin, but his grandson eventually took it over, wanting to preserve its history. Restored to its 1870s structure, today, the Bergquist Cabin is located at 1008 Seventh Street N. in Moorhead. The building, owned and maintained by HCSCC, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Scandinavian Festival

Finally, the HCSCC hosts the Scandinavian Festival at Hjemkomst Center each June. Produced by the Nordic Culture Clubs, a consortium of the five Scandinavian culture clubs in the community, the festival focuses on immigration-era traditions and modern Scandinavian culture.

Jonason explains, “Our museum is inherently educational and all of our programs engage visitors in a variety of ways that help expand their world view and inform their judgment.”

“Bravo!” I say.

All photos courtesy of Historical & Cultural Society of Clay Country

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.