Little Norway back in big Norway
In May 2015, this publication wrote about the possibility of moving the Norwegian Building, constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, back to Norway. Two and a half years later, I am happy to report that it has become a reality.
The building has had quite a few moves. The first was from Norway to Chicago, followed by a stint in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, as a movie house for the Wrigley family. In 1935, Isak Dahle had the building moved to Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, where he created Little Norway, with the stave church housing a collection of over 7,000 related artifacts.
Five generations of the Dahle family worked to keep Little Norway open, but in 2012 the attraction closed due to financial issues. Scott Winner, Dahle’s great-nephew, was never able to re-open Little Norway and put the property up for sale.
The driving force behind the salvation, restoration, and reconstruction of the building is Olav Sigurd Kvaale, whose grandfather was responsible for many of the intricate carvings that grace this wooden wonder. I had the opportunity to interview Kvaale about Project Heimatt (going home) and the future of Little Norway.
Victoria Hofmo: How did you find out about your grandfather’s involvement with this stave church?
Olav Sigurd Kvaale: In 1970, I got a gift from my uncle Anders Kvaale. This was a photo of the Norway Building in Chicago. The bottom text of the photo said that his father, my grandfather Peder Kvaale, did the dragon carvings on the portal of the stave church pavilion in the World’s Fair 1893. It stated it was produced at Strandheim Brug in Orkanger and it was placed in the garden of W. Wrigley.
VH: What made you go to the U.S. to see it?
OSK: Ten years ago I was told that the Norway Building was due to expire in Wrigley’s garden. I thought the building produced in Orkanger should be taken care of. I googled and found it was in good shape as the main attraction in the museum Little Norway. I relaxed and thought about visiting Little Norway with my wife, May Britt, when I retired. Together with my cousin Sigrid Stenset and her husband, Oddmund, we decided to go for a holiday to USA in September 2014.
Shortly before leaving we discovered that Little Norway was closed. After some struggle we got in contact with the owner, Scott Winner. He had consistently said no to all who wanted to see the museum after it was closed down. For two years, in fact!
VH: Can you describe what you were thinking when you first came upon it?
OSK: I thought the building was equal to the photos on the home page of Little Norway. It was very strange to see colors on the dragons and other ornaments; it was not like what we Norwegians expected. It should be dark wood all over.
It was a relief at last to see the building and to have a close look and touch my grandfather’s dragon carvings. The portal was bigger than I imagined. I wish that my grandfather could see us, preserving the craftsmanship from his life. He was most proud of having this project realized. And I thought the Americans and mostly Scott Winner and his family had taken good care of this beautiful building.
VH: I read that you recognized your grandfather’s carvings. How did you identify them?
OSK: I did not recognize my grandfather’s patterns. My grandfather was 20 years old when he carved this portal. This portal was the only job he did in dragon-style carvings!
Somehow the general manager of Strandheim Brug, Christian Thams, had gotten information about my grandfather’s skill. On one of the first days in November 1892, Thams arrived in the courtyard of my grandfather’s farm. He rolled out the drawing of the dragon portal for the Chicago pavilion on the floor and said, “Can you make this portal in dragon carvings, Peder? You must finish it in three months!”
VH: Why did you believe that the building should be sent to Norway?
OSK: When Scott Winner and I went up to the Norway Building, he told me the whole property with all buildings had been for sale for two years! It was difficult to sell, he said.
We took a lot of photos; we thought it was the last time we would be in Little Norway.
While on my trip in the USA, I wrote an article about our visit and the building for the Orkdal History Team. I underlined that the building was at risk, and we would lose a piece of our history if it were lost. I hoped that somebody from Orkdal would obtain funds to bring it home. We considered the building to be a treasure for the municipality of Orkdal.
VH: How did you raise the funds?
OSK: The total project cost was NOK 4.6 million. We got started with two million NOK given by the municipality of Orkdal. This was enough to buy, dismantle, and bring the building back to Orkanger. In addition we got money and services from private people, companies in the area, the County Council, and the Norwegian Department of Culture. The most important was the 20,000 hours donated by the volunteers, the project’s motor!
VH: How did you celebrate when the project was completed?
OSK: The municipality of Orkdal and the mayor Oddbjørn Bang invited all the volunteers for a nice dinner before the opening of Thamspaviljongen, which is the name of the building in Norway. There was music, song, speeches, and gifts.
VH: How is the building being used?
OSK: Thamspaviljongen will be open for all and have many uses. After the opening, we four in the project group became responsible for the operations of the pavilion. The municipality of Orkdal became the owner of the pavilion at the same time.
The Sunday after the opening there was a christening. The following week there were three concerts and one flower show. Many have reserved the building for confirmations and birth celebrations. Four hundred schoolchildren and other groups have been guided through it. It is now open every Saturday for tours.
Project Heimatt created a joyous ending for this unique piece of Norwegian and Norwegian-American history. Hopefully, the perseverance from both sides of the Atlantic that led to this success can serve as a model for preserving other pieces of our shared history.
To learn more about this stunning building and its new home visit www.facebook.com/projectheimatt.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.