Stopping in Stoughton
Norway meets Midwest in Wisconsin
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
As reported on its official website, the city of Stoughton, Wis., is known for its annual Syttende Mai celebration and as the birthplace of the coffee break. As a committed journalist for The Norwegian American, that was, of course, enough to get me to take a short detour there on my road trip through the Midwest last spring. I also knew it was home to the Livsreise Norwegian Heritage Center, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to learn more about immigration in the Midwest.
Norwegian through and through
Stoughton, located about 15 miles south of Madison, was founded in 1847 by Luke Stoughton, a New Englander who came to Wisconsin via Vermont. Stoughton recognized good possibilities within the timber industry, and he bought up large plots of land and laid out the town. But toward the end of the century, it would be Norwegian immigrants who would construct the town we know today.
The Norwegian immigrants planted wheat, and when those crops were exhausted, they planted tobacco. Other industries grew, including the Mandt Wagon Works Factory where the famous Stoughton Wagon was manufactured. At one time, over 90% of the population was of Norwegian descent and Norwegian was heard spoken more often than not well into the mid-20th century. The town, known as “The Queen of the Norwegian Settlements,” thrived.
A drive down Main Street is a drive down memory lane. The architecture is typical of any Wisconsin town from the period, with many buildings constructed of Milwaukee cream-colored brick. Thirty-six historic business structures survive in downtown Stoughton, earning it a place on the National Register of Historic Places. In one afternoon, a laid-back tourist like myself can take in a number of them.
The town’s Norwegian influence is unmistakable, especially if you arrive there two days before the 17th of May. At least five city blocks were decked out with too many Norwegian and American flags to count, and when you get a closer look at the storefronts, you know you’ve come home. I learned that many a random Norwegian will show up in Stoughton to be amazed by the preservation of their heritage there, albeit in a uniquely Stoughton style.
Keeping a culture
At the top of my list was Livsreise (pronounced “lifs-rye-sa”), which translates to “Life’s Journey” (www.livsreise.org). The mission of Livsreise is to allow visitors to explore Stoughton’s Norwegian identity and its relationship to the surrounding region. The center is also home to a genealogy center affiliated with Norwegian American Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library.
The community was blessed by a generous benefactor. Ed Bryant, one of the three founders of the Nelson Muffler Company in 1939, wanted to do something for the citizens of Stoughton in 2011. With wife Janet, he set up the Bryant Foundation to provide full ongoing funding for Livsreise. The Bryants had no Norwegian heritage, but they wanted to do something to keep their hometown vibrant and support the common good. With no entrance fees, the center is accessible to everyone.
Livsreise manager Mary Listug explained that today only 20% of Stoughton’s population can trace their genealogy back to Norway. While Listug and her husband both have Norwegian roots, she often hears from third-generation Norwegian Americans that they “wished grandma had told me more.” She, like many at Livsreise, is committed to keeping the Norwegian-American story alive.
The heritage center is filled with artifacts including spinning wheels, chests, tools, and utensils, and many pieces on loan from Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American National Museum & Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa. There are interactive stations where you can learn about the immigration: who came, when and why, and what life was like when they arrived. There is even an app that allows you to build your own personal immigrant story. The exhibit is ideal for schoolchildren, but I learned from Listug that too few students are able to visit from surrounding areas due to lack of funding for field trips. The center is a mainstay for the children of Stoughton.
The permanent exhibit is equally interesting to an adult, and I was also able to enjoy a temporary exhibit of works by local rosemaling artist, Ethel Kvalheim, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 99. A small theater provided a relaxing venue to view a film about her. The room also serves as a venue for lectures, but it is not set up for musical performances. I learned that those take place in the old Stoughton Opera House, which was at one time converted into a movie theater and is now a performance venue again. I immediately added it to my agenda.
Living a culture
Before heading back up Main Street, I peeked into the Sons of Norway Mandt Lodge 314 next door. I was lucky that it was open, as everyone was getting ready for Syttende Mai. Loads of lefse and lutefisk were being prepared, but President Darlene Anderson still took time to show me around. Located in a converted church, the building has been updated with a modern kitchen to facilitate big productions. Ambience abounds with stained-glass windows and wooden floor, perfect for dancing. My eye was drawn to set of paintings depicting scenes of Norway, including one of Edvard Grieg’s Troldhaugen. I was intrigued to learn that the pictures had been retrieved from a local McDonald’s.
I also learned that the famous Stoughton Norwegian Dancers often perform at the lodge. The prestigious youth troupe has been in existence for 65 years; it tours the United States wearing “Stoughton bunads,” folk costumes created with local materials.
Time for a coffee break
Since Stoughton claims to be the birthplace of the coffee break, I stopped at the Koffee Kup café to check things out. I didn’t find anything Norwegian on the menu, so I moved on to the Fosdal Bakery just down the street. Much to my delight, I found what I wanted: krumkake, fattigmann cookies, and rosettes, among other specialties. There were even cookies iced with the colors of the Norwegian flag and decorated with images of couples in Norwegian bunads.
I popped into the Nordic Nook gift shop across the street and was happy to find more or less everything a Norwegian American would need to set up housekeeping. There was a large selection of Norwegian sweaters, books, CDs, jewelry including sølje pins, Norwegian kitchen utensils and mugs, and beautiful rosemaling pieces by local artists. There was even a basement with antiques where you could happily hunt for vintage Norway.
Looking at the kitchenware made me hungry again, so I headed to the Viking Brew Pub, a microbrewery right in the center of town. As a sole designated driver, I wasn’t able to indulge in any libations, but I had an “Oslo Burger” to die for. I was impressed that there was “Scandinavian Cod Dinner” on the menu, which actually sounded very authentic. But most of all, I was impressed by the huge wooden Viking ship bar with its dragonhead that periodically spewed out steam. It was a real Viking adventure.
More living history
The Stoughton Opera House has been called “Wisconsin’s most charming theater,” and after seeing it, I can understand why. Located on the second floor of what is now City Hall, it was built in 1901 in Victorian style. Over the years, it was home to operas, minstrel, theater, and vaudeville shows, as well as high school productions and graduations.
The building fell into disrepair over the years and was heavily damaged by water leaks in the 1950s, but with time it was fully restored and is now set up for modern theatrical productions. The building’s clock tower was also restored and rises proud and tall above the city’s skyline.
Behind City Hall is a large pond and park, complete with an all-American bandstand. I learned from a poster that the Stoughton Village Players also have their own theater in town. I would have liked to have seen their 17th of May production of “Lost Ship of Fools or Stool Pigeons,” a slapstick adventure with Ole and Lena, but alas, one last adventure awaited me across the street at the Never Mind Saloon.
At first, I wasn’t sure I would fit into this local dive, but I was curious. In the end, I wasn’t disappointed. There were motorcycles parked outside and plenty of drinking going on inside. I didn’t know anyone, and there wasn’t anyone sober to talk to, but I immediately felt at home when I looked up above the bar and saw the photo of a Hardanger fiddler. Only in Wisconsin, I thought to myself.
A newspaper clipping told the story of Hans Fyrkerud, a local virtuoso of Norway’s national instrument and saloon proprietor at the same location back in the 1890s. I read on to learn that Hans had lovingly called his fiddle “Sigri,” and at that moment, I realized I had fallen in love with Stoughton. I had only been there for one afternoon, but it made for a lasting and most enjoyable Norwegian-American memory.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
To read more from the author’s travels to Nordic heritage locations in the Midwest, see also:
This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.