Exploring Norwegian-American heritage in the Lone Star State
I visited Norse, Texas, with my sister, Pat, last February before the COVID-19 axe fell. Pat lives in Round Rock, near Austin, so it was a good day trip for us. I was curious about Norwegian Texans and what the landscape and buildings might look like where these immigrants settled.
Driving in from Waco, past the sign saying Welcome to Clifton, Norwegian capital of Texas, I was on the lookout for indications of Norwegianness. This sign caught my eye. There really have been Norwegians here, I thought.
The nice women inside the insurance office confirmed it. One was from northwestern North Dakota and knew a lot about Norwegian Americans. The other reported she had been a member of the Clifton Firemen’s Auxiliary in 1982, when King Olav visited on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Cleng Peerson, called the “Father of Norwegian Migration to America.” She had been busy helping serve lunch to the crowd, but she recalled that there was a grand parade.
It was a Monday when we visited, so the Bosque Museum was closed, but we saw other things connecting the place to Norway: a large mural with a Norwegian and a German flag and cleverly designed cutouts of cartoon trolls riding a Viking ship at the Chamber of Commerce and related troll-themed cutouts at several businesses.
The historic markers erected to tell a Norwegian story here were some of the most informative I’ve ever seen. They ranged from a marker for the Cleng Peerson Memorial Highway, or FM219 (Farm to Market Road 219) to a state of Texas monument to Norwegian Settlements in Bosque County, and one for each Norwegian-associated church in the area. It’s kind of a complicated story, at least the way we experienced it. There are two towns and four churches. Most of the historic district is rural and scattered, with stone farmhouses the other structures built by the immigrants. Several of these have been restored and are private homes today. They are unmarked.
We took the Peerson highway out of Clifton and followed the signs for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and cemetery. The cemetery gate was not locked, and right next to it was a modern stone monument to 17 original Norwegian settlers in Bosque County – 1854. It included not only the names but pictures of eight women and nine men as well.
The church was a handsome red brick structure, with several informative markers. Using a map from the Chamber of Commerce, we drove farther along to the white-painted wooden church of the Norse Seventh Day Adventists. Its state-of-Texas marker told the captivity narrative of a Norwegian immigrant who later converted from Lutheranism to start this church. A small cemetery was associated with this church as well, but the gate to the churchyard was locked.
From here we made our way to the other rural Lutheran church in the Norse historic district. Called The Rock Church, or St. Olaf Lutheran, it was built when Our Savior’s was too distant for some settlers to reach each Sunday morning. It too had a cemetery next to the church building, but it was raining far too hard at that point to get good pictures of the cemetery. As we learned from The Rock Church marker, a larger St. Olaf Church building, called The Brick Church, was later constructed in the second Norwegian-American town in the district, Cranfills Gap. The brick St. Olaf Lutheran is a huge building for the size of the town. Many farm families must have attended along with town residents. Along the upper section of a strip mall on the main street of Cranfills Gap is a colorful mural depicting important 19th-century buildings, with The (rural) Stone Church featured front and center.
Finally, we made our way to one of the old stone farmhouses in the area. This one has been made into the Ringness House Museum (also closed) and with a large billboard in the front explaining its history. Satisfied that we had seen what we could, we continued into Clifton and drove back to Round Rock. It would be more rewarding to visit this Norwegian American historic district in better weather, and when the Clifton Museum and the Ringness House Museum are both open, but even on a February Monday, we learned a lot.
Debbie Miller is a retired reference specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society. She serves on the board of the Norwegian-American Historical Association and dreams of locating the records of the Daughters of Norway Minneapolis Head Lodge.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.