The Norsk Museum

Keeping Norwegian history and culture alive in Norway—Illinois

Inside the Norsk Museum

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Visitors are warmly welcomed to the Norsk Museum housed in the oldest Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, the former Hauge Lutheran Church.

CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

The Norwegian National League, incorporated in 1889, continues to keep Norwegian culture alive in America. An umbrella organization uniting all Chicago-area Norwegian-American organizations through its programs, member volunteers actively engage in the celebration of the Norwegian cultural heritage.

One example is the Norsk Museum in Norway, Ill., settled in 1835 by the Sloopers, Norwegian immigrants led by Norwegian Quaker Cleng Peerson, who hailed from Hesthammar in Tysvær, Rogaland. These immigrants, most with a Quaker bias, came mainly from Tysvær and left Norway in search of religious freedom and land.

The Restauration and the Sloopers

It was on July 4, 1825, that a small sloop, the Restauration, set sail from Stavanger. Built in 1801 in Hardanger, this Norse Mayflower became the symbol of Norwegian immigration to America. Bound for New York, it would take 96 days to arrive with its cargo of iron ore and 53 people on board, including a baby daughter born to the wife of expedition leader Lars Larsen. This historical voyage marked the beginning of the history of Norwegian immigration to America. 

However, Cleng Peerson, considered to the “Father of Norwegian Emigration,” was not among the sloop’s passengers. He was already on the pier in New York, waiting to welcome the crew and passengers to their new homeland. Having first made the journey in 1821 to research the situation, he returned to Norway in 1824 with information and advice, and at that time, a group decided to emigrate. 

a wooden Viking ship model

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
A miniature Viking ship stands proudly on display, connecting the town’s heritage to an earlier time.

In a curious footnote to history, the Restauration had far more passengers on board than allowed by the Steerage Act, also called the Manifest of Immigrants Act, of March 2, 1819. This act regarding passenger ships and vessels was the first law in the United States to regulate the conditions of transportation used by people arriving and departing by sea. 

In addition to governing conditions on ships, the act also required ship captains to deliver and report a list of passengers with their demographic information to the district collector. Floods of newcomers from Europe were already taking advantage of improvements in transportation. Many of these hopeful pioneers were steerage passengers, who paid low fares for poor shipboard accommodations. For their protection, Congress passed this act. 

According to Børge Solem, webmaster for norwayheritage.com, the owner of the Restauration received a large fine, confiscation of the ship and the arrest of its captain, L.O. Helland. According to Solem, the Sloopers did not intentionally break the law; they simply were not aware of it. It seems that Peerson may have had the help of the Quaker community in New York, because the situation was resolved when President John Quincy Adams personally pardoned the captain, released him and the ship, and rescinded the fine. Even in those days it paid to have contacts in high places. Solem discusses the context for this fascinating event in detail on his website, norwayheritage.com.

In the New World

After Peerson met the group when they finally landed, they moved to northern New York to the town of Kendall near Lake Ontario; this turned out to be a transition settlement. (Interestingly, the road that ran through this settlement is today named Norway Road.) Then, Peerson led the group in 1834 to the Fox River Valley, in LaSalle County, Ill., and founded the community of Norway. 

Peerson didn’t stay long. Beginning in 1834, he returned to Norway several times. By 1840, he was in Lee County, Iowa; then in 1847, he joined the Swedish immigrant society at Bishop Hill, Ill. Then in 1854, the Texas Legislature granted Peerson 320 acres in Clifton, Bosque County, in central Texas, where he lived until his death in 1865 and was buried in Cranfills Gap. 

On Dec. 16, 2015, it was 150 years since Peerson died at Norse in Bosque County, a community that held on to Norwegian culture and values until World War II and continues today with remnants of the Norwegian heritage displayed on signs and in names and local museums. (Read articles on the Bosque Museum and the Ringness House Museum in the Sept. 18, 2020, edition of The Norwegian American.)

Between 1825 and 1990, almost 900,000 people emigrated from Norway; most of them went to America. Up to 1895, relative to each European’s country’s population, Ireland was the only country with more emigrants than Norway. Odd S. Lovoll in The Promise of America (1999) describes the emigration as a movement in waves. 

Old Hauge Lutheran Church, the home of the Norsk Museum

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norsk Museum in Norway, Ill., is a treat for all Norwegian Americans, collecting and displaying artifacts from Norwegian settlers to the Midwest from nearly 200 years ago.

The Norsk Museum

To help explain this trend, the Norsk Museum was founded in 1978 in the oldest Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, the former Hauge Lutheran Church. This church building is a testimonial to Elling Eielsen, born in Voss in 1804, the Norwegian who first began Lutheran worship services in North America in the Fox River region in 1839. Earlier, he had gone to Bergen to learn blacksmithing and carpentry, both helpful trades for the early settlers. 

In 1841, Eielsen built the first church, which for the Norwegian-American pioneer served both religious and social functions. Services on Sunday were often followed by social gatherings. Ladies Aid groups, youth groups, choirs—all brought people together. And Eielsen would continue to bring people together until the end of his life. He became the classic circuit preacher who traveled by foot to Wisconsin, Illinois, and further west to minister to settlers and organize new congregations.

The first church, however, was a log-cabin structure, which burned after several years’ use. The building that stands today took its place. Its architecture illustrates an excellent example of Norwegian carpentry. All the structural beams in the attic were hand-hewn from soft pine and fastened with hard wood pegs rather than nails. The ends of some of the beams in the attic still bear various craftsmen’s symbols stamped into the wood.

Wood wainscoting in the sanctuary, painted to resemble other varieties of wood, features some of the best of Norwegian artistry, according to renovators. Graining (wood-graining, grain-painting, faux bois) is essentially the painted imitation of an expensive wood over an inferior wood or on a plain surface. This folk-art finish of faux graining was a popular decorative technique. The practice changed over time, reaching a zenith in the late 19th century, when decorative painters rendered realistic versions of mahogany, quarter-sawn oak, tiger maple, or burled wood. Earlier graining was more whimsical: It was considered artistic to render curious or fantastical patterns, sometimes in colors not found in natural wood.

These boards were installed vertically, and then they were painted to imitate horizontally installed boards. This was a way on the part of thrifty Norwegians to make inexpensive wood appear more exotic and expensive. Each door in the church also bears its own coat of wood-grained paint, as do the balcony’s round wooden pillars. 

Material for the building was hauled 70 miles from Chicago to Norway by wagon and oxen. It was dedicated as a house of worship in 1848, replacing the log cabin church built in 1838, and was decommissioned as a church in 1918. In 1977, members of the Cleng Peerson Sons of Norway Lodge purchased the building for $15,000.

Hardanger bunads on display in the Norsk Museum

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Colorful bunads from the Hardanger region are on display at the Norsk Museum.

In honor of their ancestors, local families donated the museum’s collection, including many old-country treasures brought from Norway. Since 1977, the collection has outgrown the original church so the museum board built its first addition to include room to display kitchen artifacts and install “indoor plumbing” bathrooms. Later, a large second wing was built to hold the expanding collection of furniture and farm tools. All workers are volunteers who work tirelessly giving weekend tours and organizing celebrations and events.

When His Majesty King Olav V dedicated the Cleng Peerson Memorial on Oct. 17, 1975, as part of the weeklong 150th Anniversary Celebration of Norwegian Immigration, King Olav V also stopped to visit the Norsk Museum. The community building, home of the Cleng Peerson Lodge, is just across the highway from the museum on 4.5 acres that were part of the original farm owned by Cleng Peerson. The Cleng Peerson Dugout, a replica of Peerson’s first home, was built in 1978 in cooperation with the Illinois Bicentennial Commission and is located next to the community building.

Norsk Museum Board President Dave Johnson feels a deep empathy for his Norwegian ancestry. His passion is Norwegian history and sharing its stories. Three of his grandparents were Norwegians, who immigrated from 1847 to 1892, all settling in the Norway area. When Johnson’s grandmother returned to Norway to trace her roots, one line went back to the 1490s. This trip made an indelible impression on Johnson and helped to form his interest in genealogy. “My personal goal,” he says, “is to educate fellow Norwegian descendants about their roots and what happened in 1825.” 

an antique table and chairs from Norwegian immigrants

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Local families donated heirlooms to the museum’s collection to preserve their family legacies.

Celebrating community and heritage

The Norway community has proudly preserved its Norwegian heritage for more than 48 years and in October 2025 will celebrate the Bicentennial of the Sloopers and Cleng Peerson. In the meantime, volunteers continue to work steadily to produce new displays and display cases, make repairs and conduct maintenance. Docents lead tours in the summer, and volunteers manage fundraisers. 

Two local Sons of Norway Lodges, the Cleng Peerson Lodge #5-525 and the Polar Star Lodge #5-472, contribute personnel and money to preserve an important story in the preservation of the Norwegian-American heritage. All the dedicated volunteers truly “honor and preserve the memory of their Norwegian forefathers who broke the prairie land all enjoy today,” as aptly described in the Norsk Museum’s mission statement.

Visit Norway, Ill.

The Norsk Museum

Highway 71, 3656 E.  2631st Road, Sheridan, IL 60551

Norway, Ill.

norskmuseum.org

Tel. (815) 343-5070

Open year-round for visiting groups of students and international visitors

Open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, June through September

Hours: 1 – 5 p.m.

Private tours arranged

And if you’re hungry after all the visiting, try the Norway Store nearby. Established in 1848 by Charles Borchenius and still operated by the same family, it prides itself on its homemade potato sausage and lefse as well as a fine assortment of fish, including lutefisk, and Norwegian foodstuffs as well as souvenirs.

The Norway Store

3654 N. Ill. Route 71

Sheridan, Ill. 60551

thenorwaystore.com

Tel. (815) 496-2669

Monday – Saturday: 6 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Sunday, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD, travel editor, 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. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

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