You can find me where the lutefisk is
The small town of Stanwood, Wash. proudly displays its Norwegian roots, from lutefisk dinners to the Viking Village
By Melinda Bargreen
Norwegian American Weekly
Maybe it’s the jolly accordion music emanating from the “Uff Da Shoppe” in Stanwood’s Viking Village strip mall. Maybe it’s the crisp fall weather that tells you the aroma of lutefisk will soon be in the air.
In any case, there’s no denying that the little town of Stanwood, Wash., definitely has boasted a Norwegian accent ever since the days when the Scandinavian settlers arrived back in the 1870s. In typical immigrant fashion, early pioneers from Norway – Arn Olson, Martin Larson, and the Rev. Christian Jørgenson among them – paved the way for more arrivals from the Old Country to this little hamlet about 54 miles north of Seattle. Soon after the first wave of Norwegians, a new Lutheran church was built – the first one on the West Coast. Early Stanwood wasn’t all pews and hymnals, however; bars advertised the availability of such choice beverages as “Trondheim Aquavit.”
Around 1900, only about 25 years after those first settlers from the Old Country, Ole Sather arrived in Stanwood from the Surendalen region of central Norway. Ole’s son Palmer, now 90, recalls his family’s past years of hard work and increasing prosperity as the Sathers’ original chicken and cattle farm gradually expanded to about 85 acres.
By 1905, the Norwegian settlers were numerous enough that the Norwegian Independence Day festivities in Stanwood drew a large crowd for speeches, singing, races, and a picnic lunch, according to the newspaper of the day (The Stanwood Tidings). A few years later, famed Norse explorer Roald Amundsen was brought in by the local Scandinavian Society for a lecture on his polar explorations. The formation of the Stanwood Norwegian Singing Society (later the Norwegian Male Chorus), and the “Sangerfest” choral celebrations up and down the Pacific Coast, brought more Norwegian-flavored entertainment to the area.
The early days of Stanwood were marked with a certain amount of competition, too: around 1906, a rival town, East Stanwood, emerged a short distance inland, soon boasting its own bank, church, and businesses. The two towns existed side by side as the “Twin Cities” for more than 50 years before they consolidated in the early 1960s. Today, Stanwood numbers about 5,590 residents, and traffic on Highway 532, the town’s major arterial – which leads from Interstate 5 westward via bridge to popular Camano Island – has increased to levels probably unimaginable by the early pioneers.
Stanwood has its own Norwegian-accented musical traditions, exemplified in the accordion-based ballads of the renowned Stan Boreson (still performing in his mid-80s) and his late cousin, Harry Lindbeck. Lindbeck’s daughter Sandi owns and operates a Scandinavian gift shop, the “Uff Da Shoppe,” that celebrates the town’s ethnic origins with cookware, music recordings, books, hats, trolls, elves, calendars, and just about anything else Scandinavian. Sandi does not discriminate against non-Norwegians, offering items from as far afield as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and even Germany.
Another musical luminary who grew up in Stanwood, violinist Svend Rønning, now teaches at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and is a noted expert on Norway’s premier folk instrument, the Hardanger fiddle.
Stanwood also carries on the Norwegian culinary traditions. Lutefisk, still a significant and aromatic factor in Stanwood, was celebrated in the town’s first public Lutefisk Dinner in 1907 – starting a tradition that still continues today, in the annual fundraising lutefisk feast at Stanwood High School. This year’s lutefisk dinner, hosted since 1947 by the Stanwood Lions, is set for Halloween night. The local Sons of Norway lodge, celebrating its centennial this year, also offers some fishy competition in the Lutefisk Dinner department on Friday, Dec. 10.
Where there’s lutefisk, you’ll probably find Palmer Sather; he goes to both the Stanwood dinners.
“I love lutefisk,” he says firmly. “When my folks were around, we always had it in the fall and at Thanksgiving time. We have a really good cook, Jim Lund, who does both the Stanwood dinners. He knows his lutefisk.”
So does Stanwood resident Delores Fure, who watched her Norwegian-born grandma rinse out the lutefisk crocks and prepare the fish. She treasures the recipes for lefse, fattigmand, and other treats passed down from her grandmother, and gets together with friends at Christmas to make lefse on top of the wood stove. Delores’ favorite variation on lutefisk: a sandwich made of lefse wrapped around mashed potatoes, butter, and lutefisk.
Delores, Palmer, and a number of friends like to gather each morning for coffee at the little coffee shop adjoining the Haggens grocery store – all built as part of a major commercial development just off the main road on the former farmland owned by Palmer Sather’s family.
“In fact,” says Palmer, “the farmhouse was right here where we are sitting now, and the barn was right down there. About ten years ago, we decided to develop the property. It was hard to make a living in the poultry and cattle business, and I was getting older. I’m proud of the way we have developed the land now. I don’t regret the changes. The Norwegians wouldn’t be where we are today if we worried about trying something new!”
Melinda Bargreen, a Washington State writer, critic, composer and teacher. After 31 years as classical music critic of The Seattle Times, she is now a full-time freelancer.
This article was originally published in the Sept. 24, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.