Notable Norwegians: Knute Nelson

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Senator Knute Nelson.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Senator Knute Nelson.

David Moe

Knute Nelson was born in a small house on the Kvilekval farm near Voss, Norway in 1842. He is registered in the church records as Knud, the son of an unmarried couple, Ingeborg Haldorsdatter Qvileqval and Helje Knudsen Styve.

When Knud was seven years old his mother took him to Chicago, Illinois, where she met and married Nils Grjotland and Knud changed his name to Knute Nelson. The family later moved to Wisconsin.

When the Civil War began, Knute volunteered for service. He spent three and a half years in the Union Army and during this time he was wounded and taken prisoner. After the war in 1867, he became an attorney and claimed a homestead near Alexandria, Minnesota in 1871. He built a small farmhouse on the property in 1874 and later continued to make additions to the house, adding a formal living room and a large bedroom in 1900. He completed the present structure in 1915 with the addition of a dining room and kitchen on the main floor and four more bedrooms on the second story. In his will, he gave the house to the Norwegian Lutheran Church to be used as a Home for the Aged. It served that function for 38 years and then in 1978, the house was listed on the National Register for Historic Places.

Knute Nelson’s life was one of public service. He was elected to the Minnesota legislature and served two terms in the United States Congress before becoming the state’s first foreign-born governor from 1893 to 1895. He then served in the United States Senate for 28 years, where he worked for such legislation as conservation, federal income tax, and pure food and drug.
The house he built still serves the public. On October 1, 1987, his house became the headquarters of the Douglas County Historical Society, having been completely restored with many of the original furnishings.

Knute made two visits to his place of birth in Norway and the house that dates back to about 1800, is still standing. It contains some of the original furniture, two built-in beds, a long table, a trunk, a hutch and a wooden beer-drinking vessel. A tall stone monument in the village square commemorates the memory of Knute Nelson. He died on April 18, 1921 at the age of eighty-one, while still a member of the U. S. Senate.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.