Norwegian America deep in the heart of Texas
Destination San Antonio
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
A recent trip to San Antonio, Texas, for the annual International PowWow Travel Conference prompted a visit to the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures. Greeting me at the airport was Mark Varhaug, president of the Norwegian Society of Texas, and his wife, Elizabeth, both avid readers of The Norwegian American.
“We were delighted to drive from Dallas to meet you and share a bit of Norwegian Texan history with you,” Mark said.
The institute was originally built for HemisFair ’68, the official 1968 World’s Fair or international exposition. The theme of the fair was “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” celebrating the many nations that settled in the region. It was held to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio in 1718, with more than 30 nations and 15 corporations participating.
In 1986, many unused remaining structures built for the fair were removed, and about 15 acres of the site were redeveloped with waterfalls, fountains, playgrounds, and landscaping. Rededicated in 1988, the Tower of the Americas oversees the site, rechristened HemisFair Park. And the well-known popular attraction the River Walk is now connected by a small lagoon inside the park.
The State of Texas Pavilion, the fair’s largest pavilion, belonged to the state of Texas. It became the Institute of Texan Cultures, now a museum and the third campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio. After the World’s Fair, the museum was turned over to the university to continue to serve as a platform for diversity and multiculturalism. The University assumed administrative control in 1973 and designated the institute as a campus in 1986.The mission of the Institute of Texan Cultures is a lesson in diversity, as it highlights the backgrounds of the many cultures that settled Texas. It shows the contributions those cultures made to the state’s character through stories, traditions, and artisan skills.
The museum pursues a mandate as the state’s center for multicultural education by presenting the ethnic and cultural histories of the state, not only with the exhibits. There are also special events, outreach programs for school groups, and teacher-training workshops. Because the museum is a component of the University of Texas at San Antonio, it plays a role in the university’s community engagement by offering accessible resources for educators and the public on topics of cultural heritage.
As the institute has celebrated its 50th anniversary, it looks forward to adapting the museum to serve newer generations of Texans and visitors to San Antonio. That includes redeveloping the exhibit installations by adding more modern exhibits and developing a digital presence. The future of the institute will be to continue its role as the premier museum for learning about the cultural history of San Antonio and Texas.
In 1996, a Smithsonian affiliation was established to facilitate the relationship among small museums and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to increase discovery and learning throughout America. This relationship, strengthened in 2010, will facilitate the loan of Smithsonian artifacts and traveling exhibitions, as well as performing arts programs and speakers, teacher workshops, and resources to complement the exhibitions.
Another landmark worthy of note in Texas is the CP Farm located in the Norse area of Bosque County near the town of Clifton. This was the home of Cleng Peerson, in his later years, the father of Norwegian emigration to North America.
The state of Texas originally deeded this property to Cleng Peerson in 1856. However, according to his own words, Peerson had lived on the property since 1854. Later, in 1859, he gave half the property to Ovee Colwick (Ove Kjølvig from Jelsa near Stavanger, Norway) on the condition that the Colwick family would give him a place to live out the last of his days. The property remained in the Colwick family for nearly a century, with several other owners following. The name “CP Farm” has a double meaning, “CP” for both “Cleng Peerson” and “Colwick-Peerson.”
Today the farm is owned by a Norwegian family from Tysvær, Norway. The current owners, Thomas Mannes and Eldbjørg Djønne-Stuve and their three children, live in Norway only a few miles from the place of Peerson’s birth and have followed Peerson’s footsteps to Texas.
In 2012, the Mannes family visited Clifton for the first time and saw the property where Peerson had lived. When they first saw the land, Peerson’s old cabin was still standing and remnants of an earlier, larger home could be seen next to it. Later that year, after the family returned home to Norway, a delegation from Clifton visited Norway and a discussion took place about a possible collaboration between Clifton and Tysvær. During that conversation, it was mentioned that the land where Peerson’s cabin still stands was for sale. Following this meeting, the Mannes family was able to purchase the farm. The property is now registered in the National Registry of Historical Places and is open to the public.
Berit Mason, a Norwegian-speaking daughter of a Norwegian woman from Greåker and a San Antonio native, recently completed a Sons of Norway grant project, “Sons and Daughters of Vikings, Deep in the Heart of Texas.” It is a two-part podcast on the Facebook page, ClengPeersonFarm.
The Institute of Texan Cultures is located at 801 E. César E. Chávez Blvd., San Antonio, TX 78205, open Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., admission by donation.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.