The story of a Christmas postcard
My journey with the Stavig Brothers of Sisseton, S.D.
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
The seed of this article was planted in 2014, when I noticed a Christmas postcard on eBay with a smiling girl in a red hooded coat holding a giant wreath of mistletoe. Postmarked 1908 from Sisseton, S.D., I recognized the name “Stavig Brothers.”
I thought it was probably a stock Christmas card that had been ordered from a seller. The buyer would have ordered a number of postcards with a name personalizing the Christmas greetings, an inexpensive way to send good wishes and establish a loyal customer base.
The postcard intrigued me. Not only was it the Norwegian name, I have a strong predilection for all things Norwegian from South Dakota because of my 20 years of research into the early photography and postcards of Norwegian immigrant Ole S. Leeland of Mitchell, S.D., and my involvement with the donation of the Leet School, a prairie one-room schoolhouse with Norwegian roots, to the Norwegian Emigration Museum in Hamar, Norway. I am always interested in Norwegian-related items from South Dakota.
An immigrant story
I bought the postcard, and I began to research the name Stavig. I read about a Norwegian book of American letters, Amerikabrev 1880-1950: Livssoga til to brør frå Romsdal, written by Norwegian historian and writer Rasmus Sunde and published in 2009. Later in 2013, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press published Dear Unforgettable Brother; The Stavig Letters from Norway & America, 1881-1937.
These letters demonstrate how brothers, one in Norway and one in America, shared their successes, failures, faith, and sorrows. Pursuing a new life and opportunity, Lars Stavig left his family in Romsdal and journeyed to the prairie of the Dakota Territory. Although Lars never returned to Norway, his letters and those of his brother reflect the challenges of the immigrant experience, which are very much relevant today.
Jane Torness Rasmussen, great-granddaughter of Lars Stavig, wrote in her introduction to Dear Unforgettable Brother, “half-brother Knut Stavig in Romsdal would send news of the family and friends Lars would never see again…. Over five decades, the two men—and other members of their families—exchanged more than 200 letters, all handwritten in Norwegian.”
According to Rasmussen, in May 1876, the family—Lars, Maren Hustad, and three sons—left Norway to seek their fortune in America. They departed by rowboat down the Romsdal Fjord to the port of Molde, and from there, the family took a small steamer to the port of Bergen, where they embarked first to Germany and then to America.
By June 1876, the family had arrived in Morris, Minn. In 1883, Lars filed a claim on land in Day County, Dakota Territory. Then in 1884, the family—now with five children, and including Anna, Jane’s grandmother—left Minnesota accompanied by three more families and traveled eight days some 100 miles by oxen and covered wagon to Dakota Territory.
The American Dream in Sisseton
The town of Sisseton began at the same time as the opening of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Indian Reservation on April 15, 1892. The Stavig family would in the future influence the development of Sisseton. In his youth, Andrew Stavig grew watermelons and sold them to soldiers at Fort Sisseton, an army outpost about 25 miles from the town. In 1896, he went to work for M.L. Sateren, who owned a business selling food and general merchandise on the main street of the newly formed town.
In 1898, Andrew bought out Sateren, purchased three buildings, and went into partnership with brothers Hans and Magnus. They opened the Stavig Brothers Store the same year. The store was successful, soon doing the largest volume of business of any store in the county. A store advertisement in 1901 proclaimed “Yours for Honest Goods and Low Prices.”
By 1900, Sisseton had a population of about 1,000 and was incorporated in 1901. The county courthouse was built near the center of the town in 1902, following the county seat dispute between Travare and Wilmot, which ended with Sisseton being elected county seat. At that time, the town had 10 hotels, six saloons, five gambling houses, three newspapers, and 16 lawyers.
The Stavigs employed many Sisseton residents and were particularly helpful to new immigrants, who found work at the store, often lodging at Andrew Stavig’s house in the early days of the store’s operation. A 1907 listing of the clerks at the store reveals that 11 of the 22 clerks were born in Norway.
The Stavig Brothers Store’s business continued to grow. In 1908, the store was enlarged to meet the needs of the growing town. In 1913-1914, when the Soo Line Railroad was being constructed from Rosholt to Grenville, new towns sprang up almost instantly along the line, thus increasing the number of possible customers.
The Stavig Brothers, early entrepreneurs, understood how to remain memorable to their customers. They spent money on Christmas goodies. According to Norma Johnson, author of a comprehensive store biography in Wagon Wheels (vol. 5, 1986), beginning in 1914, it was a store tradition to gift to customers religious calendars at Christmas.
Two versions, Catholic and Protestant, were at one time printed in Norwegian, Swedish, and English. Other personalized items included salt and pepper shakers, clothes brushes, spoons, and—of course—Christmas greetings on postcards. This business acumen helped propel the store to become the largest retail business between Denver and Minneapolis by the 1930s.
But fires impeded the store’s success. In 1917, a fire gutted the store, but it was rebuilt in 1918. However, in 1950, another fire destroyed the store; it was rebuilt in 1952. But times change, and people change. In 1983, the store was sold, and by 1998, it was closed forever.
A story comes full circle
It is difficult to imagine the hardship of leaving home and going to a new country with a different culture and language. But it is very heartwarming to look back at the history of the journey and find that the American Dream was alive for this family. Their story lives on through the letters of both Lars (died 1933) and Knut Stavig (died 1950). Lars’ grandson, Harold Torness of Sisseton, learned of the letters while visiting relatives in Norway. He then discovered the other half, the letters sent to America, which were stored in a forgotten trunk owned by Dorothy Stavig, in Sacramento, Calif.
Torness, a hero in this story, had the letters translated from Norwegian—no easy task. And the Stavig story has not only morphed into two books of letters, one in Norwegian and the other in English, it also became a theater production, which has been performed more than 70 times and has served as the source for a documentary film. The reader’s theater production, “The Stavig Letters: The Story of a Norwegian Immigrant” is a program of the South Dakota Humanities Speakers Bureau. The Emmy-award winning documentary “The Stavig Letters” was produced by South Dakota Public Broadcasting and is available on DVD through the Stavig House Museum.
The historic Stavig House, built by Scandinavian craftsmen in 1916, was the home of Andrew, the eldest son in the family. It remained in the Stavig family for 80 years and was bequeathed to the Heritage Museum of the Coteau des Prairies by Andrew’s daughter, Mathilda (1904-1994), who lived in the house throughout her life. Opened as a museum in 1996, it has summer hours, and during the winter, it is open for special events and by appointment.
All original Stavig letters, the largest collection of its kind, are now housed in the Romsdal Archives of the Romsdalsmuseet in Molde. Founded in 1912 as the Romsdal Bygdemuseum, it has since grown into one of the larger regional museums in Norway, with a collection consisting of more than 100 buildings, the oldest from the 12th century. In the new building, called “Krona” (The Crown), there is a permanent exhibition, offices, a library, and a digital photo collection. Romsdalsmuseets Leikarring is a dance and folk music group formed in 1928, and the museum also has its own national costume (bunad) workshop, which makes costumes inspired by historical textiles.
Kåre Stavik, Knut’s grandson in Molde, and Dorothy Stavig in Sacramento, both decided that the letters should be in one place in the Stavigs’ country of origin. Kåre donated his America letters to the Romsdal Museum in 2009. Jane and husband, John picked up the corresponding letters in California and hand-carried them to South Dakota.
In July 2010, the America letters were reunited with their Norwegian counterparts. Jane explained, “That evening, we gathered with Stavik relatives in the living room of the old farm home at Knutgarden to watch the news story on national television…” And so finally, on that Norwegian summer evening, the heartfelt intertwined Stavig story had come full circle.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.