Washington Prairie volunteers uncover more than spirit of giving

Herbjørn Gausta (1854-1924) “The Haymakers” Oil, ca. 1880’s

By Lissa Greiner – The Decorah Newspaper

You never know what you’re going to find in an old house. But when volunteers at the Washington Prairie parsonage started an extensive remodel recently — they had a pretty good idea. “We wanted to see if the story about the famous paintings was legend or lore,” said Volunteer Karla Bakken of Decorah. The paintings she was referring to were original drawings by Norwegian artist Herbjørn Gausta, reportedly covered over by layers of wallpaper and paint throughout the years. 

What they found was more than they could have imagined – 21 pictures – and still counting. “In the past, three of the paintings had been preserved and exposed. I had always heard there were more,” said Bakken, who contacted Darrell Henning, curator emeritus of Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, for advice on how to best attack the daunting task of uncovering the work.  “He showed me the way to take the four layers of wallpaper off without harming the pictures,” said Bakken, who has since spent hour after hour delicately uncovering the wallpaper, strip by strip.

About Gausta’s stay 

Norwegian immigrant Herbjørn Gausta (1854 – 1924) is considered by historians as “a painter of exceptional talent who appears to have been the first professional artist of Norwegian immigrant origin.” He lived with the U.V. Koren family at the Washington Prairie parsonage while teaching at Luther College from 1886 to 1887, staying with them on other occasions as well. They are credited with the establishment of Luther College.

Vilhelm Koren led Washington Prairie Church from its establishment in 1853 until 1910 when his son, Paul Koren, took over. During the time Gausta stayed with the Korens, he left his signature in the form of extensive drawings on the plaster walls of the small room in which he lived.

In 1941, the Decorah Journal ran a story entitled, “Artist drew on Koren walls 55 years ago,” detailing the sketches adorning the walls of the room. At the time, the charcoal renderings had been preserved with a fixative and left intact for all to see.  In a written history of Washington Prairie Church, the drawings’ fight for survival is chronicled.

“Pastor Sansgaard said that when Pastor Engebretson came to the parsonage before he moved in, he found some ladies scrubbing with SOS pads trying to get rid of those pictures. A couple of the pictures were nudes and apparently that was the factor that sparked their removal,” said the church history. “Engebretson said he had worked real hard to stop the ladies from going any further, but they kept scrubbing while he talked. The ladies finally stopped, but to this day, the scrubbing marks that the SOS pads left are still evident.”

Sometime after the article ran in the Journal, all but three of the paintings were covered over with wallpaper, failing to see the light of day until recently, when Bakken brought them back to life.

A big project

But it’s a discovery that almost didn’t happen.  Not all of the members of the Washington Prairie congregation felt the church should put the amount of work required into restoring the ailing structure. “We ‘re in the process of calling a new pastor to our church right now, and we knew the whole house needed to be updated. There are many people in the congregation who didn’t want to save this parsonage,” said Bakken.  Instead, some of the parishioners thought the house and a few acres should be sold, and a brand new home constructed for the incoming pastor.But volunteer Duane Snyder of Decorah said he didn’t think that was such a great idea.

“They had it appraised at $150,000 with so many acres. Personally, with the way the house was before we started working on it, I don’t think we would have gotten $50,000 for it,” said Snyder. After putting it to a vote, it appeared the majority was in favor of saving the historic home, and by February, around 50 volunteers, ages four through 88, began logging hundreds of hours restoring the large, country home.

“In a little over a month, we’ve logged more than 1,300 hours of volunteer labor,” said Snyder. “I’ve got three or four gentlemen here every day donating their time. I’m pushing it now because some of them are farmers. Right now I’ve got free labor and I’m using it,” said Snyder.

Amazing generosity

Snyder said although the church took out a loan for $50,000 for the construction, “We haven’t had to touch that. Everything has been paid for with donations. Even our lunches are usually provided by ladies from the church – I think we’ve only had to go to town once for lunch,” added Snyder.

The committee

The parsonage committee includes Bakken, Snyder, Joel Teslow, Wayne Wangsness, Paul Estrem, Kenny Otteson, Ron Moen, Carl Svenson and Gerry Johnson, all of Decorah. Snyder said Bakken, the only woman on the committee, “has to put up with all of us guys.”  But Bakken doesn’t mind, and the men seem to have the utmost respect for her tireless dedication to Gausta’s little room in the corner of the upstairs.  “There’s a sign on the door that says, ‘Please do not work in this room unless you talk to Karla first,'” said Snyder. “I don’t let many people in here to work on this. I guess I’ve taken ownership of this space,” said Bakken. “They pretty much keep out of here … Paul Estrem has even started calling it Karla’s cave,” she joked.

What’s next? 

Once the parsonage is completed, Bakken said the room with Gausta’s drawings will be adorned with Pastor Koren’s bed and one of his chairs.  “This room will be preserved. And whoever we get as a pastor will know that we would like to show it off to people who are interested … This room will be visited by many people,” she said.  As for the rest of the house, Snyder said he hopes the volunteers are adding enough value to the home so, if the church ever does find itself in a position where it needs to sell the house and a few acres, it could be sold for significantly more money.  “It’s been at least 30 years since anyone touched this place. That’s a long time,” said Snyder.

Historical significance

As for Bakken, she just hopes her efforts will be preserved.  “There are people in the congregation who didn’t want to save the parsonage. But now nobody questions what I’ve been doing. All the members are quite amazed at what we’ve uncovered here,” she said.

Preserving history

Henning said he appreciates the effort the volunteers at Washington Prairie are putting in to save such a rare piece of history. “As a historian and former curator and director of Vesterheim, the Vilhelm Koren family were probably the most prominent individuals connected with the Lutheran church in America, of all the million immigrants,” said Henning.

Henning added, while he looks upon all of the Norwegian immigrants as “nation builders,” “Among the Norwegians, the Korens and a few others stand tall. Preserving the home is a very tangible monument of their presence and contribution to America as it is today.”

Regarding the rediscovery of Gausta’s work, Henning said, “Among the Norwegians in America, he is considered prominent among the art community. He was taken under the wing of Koren who financed his studies in Europe, because he recognized talent in this young man.”

Although he never received great fame in his lifetime, his portraits and landscapes are now recognized as important contributions to the Norwegian American art scene as well as in America.”

After leaving Decorah, Gausta established his studio in Minneapolis, where he lived until his death at age 70. He was never married.  He is most famous for his numerous portraits of prominent Norwegian-American individuals and about 400 altarpieces for Norwegian-American churches. He is buried in Harmony, Minn., alongside a 16-foot granite monument which was erected in his honor in 1927.

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