The history of the emigration to America comes alive
Each year, two areas in south Norway celebrate their ties to the United States. This connection is a result of over 100 years of emigration from this region to the other side of the Atlantic, whether temporarily or permanent.
The first event, the American Festival in Vanse in Agder County was founded in 2008 and takes place during the last week in June. Since 1989, nearby Kvinesdal then holds their annual Utvandrerfestival the following week.
It is not unusual to find families with several generations born in alternating countries. In one family, a third-generation member was born in Brooklyn, another second-generation member in Kvinesdal, and the third one in Brooklyn. Ties and dual identities between the two places are strong.
One important person from Kvinesdal who made vital contributions to the United States is Sister Elisabeth Fedde, a deaconess and founder of the Norwegian Deaconess Hospital (later the Lutheran Medical Center and now New York University Langone) in Brooklyn, as well as several institutions in the Midwest. She hails from Feda.
But on April 25, Norwegian Minister of Culture Abid Raja extended the ban on events of 500 or more from mid-June to Sept. 1. Vanse’s event, which boasts an annual parade, participation from the American Car Club of Norway, lots of music, and other activities, was canceled—it will definitely be a trip to consider in 2021.
The Utvandrefestival, however, was up and running.
According to Erling Dugan, one of the organizers, “When coronavirus hit Norway and locked down, the question of whether or not we should cancel the festival, we decided to move ahead and have the festival with the government limitations. This generally meant a limit of 200 per event.”
The festival lasted for nine days, in various locations, spread out from Feda in the south to Knaben in the north. Three locations stand out: downtown Kvinesdal, Fjotland, and Knaben. With their plethora of emigrant history, they are hubs of summer activity and are worth visiting any time of the year.
On the Fourth of July, a dinner-dance featuring country musician Bjørn Wikøren was held at the Utsikten Hotell, beautifully situated at the apex of the Feda fjord: a festive celebration of the U.S. national holiday.
The following day focused on the 59th Street Church in Brooklyn. Many from this town attended or still belong to that church. Dugan took down the oral histories of three locals to document their time in Brooklyn.
On June 30, the town also had a special day for the children, Barnas dag, including mini-cars, the opportunity to make your own instrument, a barbecue and fish fry, as well as the worldwide phenomenon that delights children and terrifies parents: a slime workshop.
Notably, Kvinesdal is home to the moving Emigrant Monument, a tribute to all those who left and the pain it caused.
Another noteworthy site is the American Emigration Museum, which preserves the artifacts, archives, and stories related to this municipality’s connections to New York. Rooms that replicate a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, apartment from the 1950s and 1960s, are fun highlight, even offering a working vintage jukebox.
Fjotland is known for its 19th-century visual artists. Flotlandsdagen, an annual component of this event, was held on June 28, with a concert in the local church, followed by a lecture about mining in the area by Knut Petter Netland. The event ended with a concert featuring pop singer Hilde Selvikvåg.
Fjotland’s preserved past includes an old schoolhouse and farmhouse, both now residing next to the town museum, Bygdemuseum. The museum houses 3,000 artifacts, including a large collection of domestic and farm implements. Next door is the historic church, which includes an art gallery.
My first visit to Knaben was memorable, largely because of the wonderful Knaben Landhandel there. This country store, in operation since 1934, is the kind of business you would have found in a prairie town of the old West. The general store offers practical equipment and supplies, which are essential to the lovers of the outdoors attracted to this area.
But you can also sit in a cozy corner for coffee, pølse (hotdog), bolle (sweet bun), or a Norwegian chocolate bar. Local artisan handcrafts can be purchased, both beautiful and unexpected in such a remote area.
In the wintertime, skiers are drawn to this mountainous town, soaring 2,070 feet above sea level. But its original draw was not for what one could do on top of these mountains but for what was found inside them: molybdenum, a mineral used in steel alloys. During World War II, the Nazi occupation did not overlook Knaben, coveting their vital commodity. Their presence led to the later bombing of the town by the Allies.
It is, in part, a dark history not to be forgotten. The Nazis transformed the mines into forced labor camps and engaged in a brutal treatment of the Russian prisoners of war sent there.
Today, the Knaben Gruvemuseum (Mining Museum) offers tours of the mines and interprets their historic importance. Interestingly, no one resides in Knaben now.
The festival in Knaben devoted the entire day on June 27 to this unpopulated town, Knabendagen. It focused on the former mine and its historical significance, framed by a message of peace.
Many activities took place at the Knaben Chapel. A plaque was unveiled to commemorate the Russian prisoners who were dehumanized there. This was followed by a lecture, “75 Years of Peace” by Arne Wyller Christensen, followed by a peace march from the chapel to a memorial, where flowers were laid.
A worthwhile success
When asked how this year’s Utvandrerfestival was received, organizer Dugan said, “We were very happy with the results, and people appreciated getting back and meeting each other. Now we have started planning next year’s event, hopefully back to normal, and back to welcoming Norwegian Americans who are back in Norway.”
This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.