Why not Westby!
Celebrating Norwegian heritage and Syttende Mai in a historical Wisconsin town
Celebrating Syttende Mai and all that is Norwegian is nothing new to the Norwegian-American community of Westby, Wis. Located in the Driftless Region of western Wisconsin, the area around the present city of Westby was first settled by Norwegian immigrants in 1848.
Many families emigrated from Biri and Gausdal, Norway, and bought land in the townships of Coon and Christiana. Among the first to arrive were Even Olsen Gullord, Hans Olsen Libakken, Hans Nilsen Neprud, Syver Nilsen Galstad, Ole Tostensen Gullord, and Martin Paulsen Paulhaugen. Each one took a land claim and by 1850, many more Norwegian immigrants had arrived.
Setting up the first church
Tosten Olsen Westby, who was with a later group of Biri immigrants arriving in 1849, bought 40 acres of land on what is known as Coon Prairie. Following the Civil War, his son, Ole T. Westby, built a frame building to be used as a store and hotel. The railroad workers, delivering large orders to his store, started calling it the Westby stop; that name eventually became the name of the town.
The Rev. Claus L. Clausen conducted religious services in Coon Prairie in 1851. Later that year, missionary Pastor Nils Brandt did as well. The first congregation on Coon Prairie was founded in July 1852, and the congregation legally incorporated in 1854. Taking the name Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bad Ax (Vernon) County, Wis., it later became known as the Coon Prairie Lutheran Church.
The first pastor of the newly organized congregation was the Rev. H. A. Stub, who assumed the duties of the parish on July 1, 1855. During the first years of his pastorate, services were held in Even Olsen Gullord’s barn. A new church was built in 1856 just south of the Gullord barn and is known today as the first church built by Norwegians in western Wisconsin and the first church of any kind built in Vernon County.
By 1873, the sprawling Coon Prairie congregation, having outgrown the pioneer church, needed a new building. In 1875, on the same site as the first church, construction began on a Gothic Revival edifice, 110 feet by 60 feet by 30 feet, built of native limestone. The new church, the largest Norwegian-Lutheran church north of Chicago, could seat 600 people in the pews, and the curved balcony could hold 250 people. The cornerstone for the new church was laid in 1875, and after three years of construction, the church opened. This church building often served as a local meeting place, and it is said that Norwegian-American historian and diplomat, Rasmus B. Anderson, came sometime in 1880 to speak to a Syttende Mai audience.
As more and more Norwegians arrived and spread out around Vernon County, it became increasingly difficult for the pastor to minister to the ever-growing congregation. The Coon Prairie congregation became one of the larger Norwegian-American congregations in the United States, and today the Coon Prairie Church is the “Mother Church” to over 20 other Lutheran congregations in the region.
Syttende Mai in the heart of Westby
A well-documented Syttende Mai celebration took place in Westby on Monday, May 18, 1885, because Sunday was reserved for church services and families. The day began with an early morning artillery salute at sunrise. At 10:30 a.m., the train arrived bringing large numbers of people from neighboring counties to take part in the festivities.
A procession formed and marched to the grove north of Westby, led by the Westby cornet band, followed by the Norwegian musketeers, and then by a banner and local Westby citizens. The President of the Day Dr. J. K. Schreiner gave a short speech. In addition, the main address—in Norwegian—was given by the local teacher, Professor C. Heltberg. Music, singing, a picnic dinner, and artillery salutes came throughout the day, followed by wheelbarrow and sack races.
The May 20, 1885, issue of the Vernon County Censor reported on the celebration:
“Taken altogether the celebration was a success. The crowd was orderly, and nothing occurred to mar the pleasure of the occasion. A dance in the evening closed the day’s celebration, and the day will long be remembered by the people of this county as an appropriate celebration of the constitution adopted at Eidsvold in 1814—the freedom of the mother country from Denmark.”
Later, in 1914, marking the 100th year of Norwegian independence, Westby held an impressive anniversary celebration. The May 13 Vernon County Censor advertised a celebration “in song and praise, in speech and impressive service,” by the townspeople, including a parade and speeches in both English and Norwegian.
The follow-up article on May 20 read, “Westby citizens did themselves proud on Sunday last in giving vent to love for the mother country and its institutions and history,” calling it “one of the memorable days in the history of [Westby].” The article described the parade led by the cornet band, with a “blending of stars and stripes and the Norwegian flag borne aloft, girls dressed in native costumes, Boy Scouts on bicycles, Sons of Norway, school children, each carrying a flag, making a procession that was both creditable and inspiring.”
With an overwhelming 97% of Westby residents claiming Norwegian ancestry, according to the American Automobile Association travel guide of the 1940s, celebrating Syttende Mai was an important feature of Westby’s heritage. Unfortunately, World War II took its toll, and the observance faded as a major Westby holiday.
As other towns of similar ethnic background revived their celebrations, the momentum began in Westby as well. In June 1967, a local columnist mourned the fact that other Norwegian localities had Velkommen signs in their towns and Westby certainly should have them too—and be celebrating Syttende Mai. At that time, former Mayor P. N. Rude, as a Kiwanis project, designed three signs and had them built at the city limits along the major roads that came into Westby. The “Nisse Lady” Evelyn Larson helped execute Rude’s unique idea: nisse in costume, painting “Velkommen til Westby” on large board signs.
These welcome signs were the impetus for the revival of a May 17 celebration. In 1968, Lyle Lund, Ella Anderson, Norvel Buros, and Marian Nottestad met several times over coffee and discussed the possibility of renewing Syttende Mai in Westby. In early 1969, two young business owners, David Vosseteig and Jim Weber, got involved, wanting to attract people to the city. An official meeting was scheduled for April 22, 1969, for anyone interested in supporting a festival. With little time and no budget, various committees were set up immediately. The committees worked diligently so that everything would be in good order for the celebration, just 25 days away.
The crowd at the 1969 fest was much larger than expected, and everyone determined the day to be a great success. In September, a meeting was held to discuss possibilities for coming years. They elected officers and officially incorporated the celebration. Many features have been added since the first very simple celebration, notably two extra days of festivities, making for three days of capacity crowds and many additional features.
The selling of commemorative buttons is usually the first indication that Syttende Mai is drawing near. The Syttende Mai Royalty Court is chosen, and a coronation banquet is held. The kickoff breakfast and live radio and television broadcast starts the festival on Friday morning.
Throughout the weekend, there are displays of Norwegian arts and crafts, such as Hardanger rosemaling and wood carving. Lefse, rømmegrøt, and various cookies and treats are both demonstrated and sold. Students put on a school art exhibit and choir concert, and trolls are hidden throughout the city, along with other games for children, live music, and dances throughout the weekend.
The Saturday Kiddie Parade and Sunday Big Parade are very well attended. Sunday also features a Norwegian church service, as well as meatball and lefse meals in the church basement. The celebration continued each May since 1969 until 2020, when it was canceled due to the pandemic. The 2021 event will be a very limited one-day event for the same reason.
A place of history and heritage
Heritage and local history are especially important in Westby. The Westby Area Historical Society and Genealogy Center was founded in 1989 as an educational organization whose mission is to preserve and promote the history, culture, and heritage of the Westby vicinity for current and future generations.
The archives are held at the Thoreson House Museum, one of the community’s older historic homes. In 1881, Theodore and Katherine Bekkedal Thoreson moved their family to Westby, purchasing 2.5 acres of land. In 1884, Theodore and his father, Ole, began a lumber and construction business. In 1892, they built a beautiful Victorian home, and the influence of their lumber business is evident with inlaid floors, pocket doors and bird’s eye maple and oak found throughout the house.
Their son, Bennett C. Thoreson, became the first mayor of the city of Westby when the city was incorporated in 1920. In 1993, the Westby Area Historical Society (WAHS) purchased the house to create a permanent museum. An elected board of directors operates the historical society. I am the current president and curator of the museum.
The museum collects artifacts relating to the area and preserves the genealogical and historical information of those who have resided in the Westby region. The displays are planned and executed by WAHS board members and volunteers. The spacious grounds are used for various WAHS and community events—from meetings to weddings—throughout the year.
Story-driven elements are incorporated within the displays that reflect Westby area history. Visitors first enter a “full immersion” 1900s parlor room. A large diorama of Westby, circa 1910, is the showpiece in another room filled with artifacts from local businesses. The Veterans’ Honor Room holds World War I and World War II artifacts and mannequins wearing uniforms from both world wars and later dates.
The tobacco farming display serves as the entry story to the area’s agricultural history. The Syttende Mai collection is part of a broader display of Norwegian immigrant trunks, cooking utensils, musical instruments, and art. The Thoreson House Museum ski-jumping collection is our new permanent exhibit; since 1923, Westby has been internationally known within ski-jumping circles for its Snowflake Ski Club, sponsor of many Olympic tryouts.
The museum’s archives and library hold local school yearbooks from 1914 to the present; plat maps; area and family photographs; local Westby club records; business records; and original bound volumes of the Westby Times newspaper from 1917 – 2019. The larger portion of the library emphasizes local genealogical and historical materials and includes numerous records that are not commonly found.
Included are area church records dating back to 1852; cemetery records; funeral home records; census records; family histories; Westby vital records from 1907 to 1938; school records dating back to the 1890s; Norwegian bygdebøker; and an extensive collection of Norwegian-American and local area obituaries. A highlight of the collection is over 1,000 microfilms of Norwegian church records, a recent gift of the Bydelagenes Fellesraad.
Research staff is available to assist those who need help documenting their genealogy, and we offer a special “Centennial Circle” certificate to those artifacts and provide programing for their patrons. Nursing home visits have been part of our community outreach in the past, and we hope to continue when the pandemic is over. The Westby Syttende Mai event and the Sweet Rides and Sweet Pies classic car show and pie and ice cream social are our two major fundraising events.
WAHS partners with local schools to provide information about the area’s history, heritage, and genealogy. Museum tours and school visits are part of the collaboration, and there is a partnership with the local Bekkum Memorial Library to display activities.
The group also organizes an annual “Grandparent of the Year” award based on essays from local school students. In addition, we grant a “Volunteer of the Year” award. As a membership organization, we provide a quarterly newsletter called History Keepers highlighting new acquisitions, volunteer opportunities, upcoming events, story highlights, and vintage images of Westby.
You will find information about Westby and the surrounding region by visiting the WAHS blog, Westby, Wisconsin Remembered, at westbyhistory.blogspot.com. Please visit our website, westbywihistory.com, or find our organization on Facebook at facebook.com/westbywihistory.
This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.