Strong sister city relationship between Minot and Skien
By Candi Helseth
“Tourism has been the biggest benefit, but educational and cultural opportunities, as well as a stronger sense of heritage and a lot of personal friendships, have also emerged as part of this ongoing relationship,” said Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman, who has visited Skien. “It’s surprising how many people will view that sister city relationship as a reason to go to Norway. Skien gives them a start, a spot they want to see, that they include in those Norway plans.”
Brekke Tours and Juven Tours, both North Dakota travel organizations, schedule Skien among destinations on their annual Norway tours, said Skien Culture Minister Ragnar Nilssen, and their city also sees more independent travelers that indicate they first heard about Skien at Norsk Høstfest in Minot. “We’re seeing increased travel on both sides of the board,” Minot CVB Director Wendy Howe said. “We’ve had a lot of folks from Telemark call to tell us they’re coming to the United States and plan to visit Minot while they’re here. We have more Norwegian visitors stopping in at our Visitors’ Center too.”
The sister city relationship was the brainchild of Norsk Høstfest President Chester Reiten, who approached Skien to partner with Minot because the two cities share a common heritage and have several similarities. Reiten said many Norwegian immigrants that settled in North Dakota came from Norway’s Telemark region where Skien is located.
Skien’s city council has funded a delegation to attend Høstfest every year for the last 14 years. Vice Mayor Geir Arild Tønnessen said the city believes that the return on its investment is worth the expense. Minot representatives have also attended Telemark fylkes Handelsstevne, Skien’s annual Scandinavian festival. “When we go to Høstfest, we market the whole Telemark region,” said Rolf Haugen, a Skien attorney who has made so many trips to North Dakota that he was named a North Dakota honorary ambassador last year. “Minot is a good area for us because of that common ancestry.”
Cultural and educational interactions between the sister cities also spur tourism interests. Skien representatives kindle interest in Norway among youth as they teach Scandinavian classes through Høstfest in the Schools, which reaches about 6,000 Minot area students. Minot and Skien school classrooms are engaged in pen pal programs. Last year Minot State University President David Fuller led a group of educators on a trip to Skien to establish a student exchange program between MSU and Telemark College in Skien. Sharing music and culture increases tourism too. Minot’s Heritage Singers performed in Skien on a Norway concert tour a few years ago. Last fall, Skien’s Suoni Wind Orchestra presented a free public concert at MSU and performed at Høstfest throughout the week.
While Skien is Minot’s only sister city, sister cities are more common in European countries, Haugen said. Skien has 14 sister cities. These relationships enable Skien leaders to exchange ideas and develop opportunities that can lead to growth in a world market that has become globally oriented, Tønnessen added. The relationships vary depending on interests. While Minot and Skien have focused on travel and culture, Skien has assisted sister city, Onesti, Romania, with civil projects like building roads and water systems. “It’s important to have a focus across the borders,” Nilssen said. “It helps our people learn about other populations. And we learn from others how to understand both sides of things.”
Reiten, who has headed Høstfest since its inception 31 years ago, said Skien has been a good match for Minot. The cities are of comparable size, have strong agricultural bases and sponsor annual Scandinavian festivals. Both are built along rivers framed by oak and elm trees. Minot sits in a valley of rolling hills; towering mountains surround the Skien valley. Haugen said construction workers recently unearthed a buried Viking building that indicates people lived there 1,000 years ago. That would make Skien, Telemark’s capital, the oldest city in Norway although Tønsberg officially holds the title now.
Minoters who travel to Skien say the Skien vacation experience exposes them to a very different world and at the same time reminds them of home. The twin towers of Skien Church, rebuilt of Norwegian glazed stone in 1894 after a town fire, can be spotted from any point in the city. Telemark Canal connects 18 lock levels of a canal system for sea transport; sawmills and outposts are reminders that the city was Norway’s largest lumber town for many years. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien. Ibsen sculptures and memorials are everywhere and his birth home is a popular tourist stop. Telemark Fylke Museum provides rich historical details dating back to the early 1200s; still, many of its buildings resemble those found in early North Dakota.
“Getting to see the similarities and the differences between our cultures and lifestyles is fascinating,” said Laura Mihalik, a Minot member of the sister city committee. “We went to this farm in the mountains where they hardly farm any land, unlike the large farms here on our flat plains. Still, there were a lot of similarities. And they do eat lefse in Norway too. We were served the best lefse and flatbread ever. We were treated so well everywhere we went. Norwegian hospitality is the best!” Skien residents feel the same way about their trips to Minot. “When we come to Minot, we feel very much at home,” Haugen said. That’s the commonality of being Scandinavian and one of the reasons for Høstfest’s long-term success, according to Reiten. Scandinavians are always hospitable, no matter where they live!
The Norsk Høstfest tour to Norway will be Aug. 11- 25. Norsk Høstfest festival in Minot is scheduled for Sept. 29 – Oct. 3 (www.hostfest.com). Upcoming Skien events include Mer Smak, a food festival, Aug. 28 – Sept. 6, and the Handelsstevne festival Aug. 29 – Sept. 6.
This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on June 19, 2009. For subscription information, call us toll-free at (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.