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Road Trip Through History: The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

On the first day of our Great River Road adventure (1), My Own True Love and I veered about 45 miles off the Great River Road so I could sneak in a bit of a research for the book proposal I’m working on at the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum and Heritage Center  in Decorah, Iowa.(2) Sandy was a willing co-conspirator because 1)it would be a shame to have to come back if I sell the book and 2)it looked like a pretty fabulous museum.

And let me tell you, it IS a pretty fabulous museum.

The museum explores the story of Norwegian immigration to the United States, putting it in the context of nineteenth century Norwegian culture and the broader experience of nineteenth century immigration to America. It also celebrates Norwegian folk art, then and now. In fact, if you’re in Decorah for a longer period, you can sign up for classes in rosemaling, traditional embroidery techniques (3), folk music, flatbread baking (4), etc, etc, etc.

Kubbestol–Traditional Norwegian log chairs. More comfortable than they look!

The folk art exhibits are breathtakingly beautiful. Well-trained docents give tours of a campus of well-maintained historic buildings, ranging in size and complexity from a small log storage cabin (5) to a nineteenth century Lutheran church. And the exhibit on Norwegian immigration not only told me a portion of the story of immigrants to the United States that I had not heard before, but it made elements of the broader story of nineteenth century immigration to this country more vivid for me.

Here are some of the things that caught my imagination:

  • The first group of Norwegians emigrants sailed from Norway on July 4(!), 1825. They were known as the “Sloopers” because their ship was a sloop that was tiny for ocean-going even by the standards of their time. Like so many early emigrants they were religious dissenters. Some of them were Quakers; (6) others followed the pietist teachings of Hans Nielsen Hauge. The official state church of Norway persecuted both groups.
  • Norway was second only to Ireland in the percentage of its population it lost to emigration in the century between 1825 and 1930. Norwegians left their homes for many of the same reasons as the Irish: growing population, limited arable land (7) and the potato famine that swept Europe in 1845.
  • In the mid-nineteenth century, emigrants provided their own food for the voyage and cooked it on the ship on open fires in  long bins filled with sand.
  • A “stove wood” house, built of pieces of wood cut to the length that would fit in a woodturning stove and held together with plaster. The walls were about one foot thick and well-insulated. Unlike log cabins, a man could build a stove wood house by himself.

I came away stunned by new awareness of just how hard it was for emigrants to leave their homes to travel to a new country.  I was also stunned by the love of decoration pervasive in traditional Norwegian culture.

If you’re anywhere near Decorah, take the time for a visit.

(1)Part 3, or maybe Part 4, depending on whether you count our consolation prize four-day weekend in 2014.  And you really should, because it was weird and wonderful.

(2) Yes, that’s a hint. But it won’t help you much.

(3) Personally, I’m tempted by the hardanger classes. (Autocorrect changed this to harbinger classes. Perhaps a good choice for Halloween weekend. Beware, beware….)

(4) Or Norwegian Christmas cookies

(5)The answer to the question of where people stored things in a one-room cabin.

(6) Norwegian Quakers, you ask? I did, too. According to our docent, Denmark/Norway fought on the French side in the Napoleonic Wars. (Brief pause while I check this.) Some Norwegian prisoners of war were taken to England, where Quakers and Methodists visited them in prison and managed to convert a number of them from the state-sponsored Lutheran church.

(7) In the case of Norway, the limits were imposed by the country’s geography. In the case of Ireland, they were artificially created by British policies.


Travel Tip:

The Magpie Cafe and Coffeehouse is a wonderful lunch spot. Good coffee and imaginative sandwiches. I can’t speak for the quality of the pastries. But I’ve regretted not getting the cardamom cinnamon roll. It looked fabulous.

On the Road Again

This is not a blog post, it’s a preview of coming attractions.

It took us five hours to reach the trip’s first historical marker.

My Own True Love and I are back on the Great River Road.  Today we reached the banks of the Mississippi and are ready to take up where we left off. While part of the charm of our adventures on the Great River Road is discovering the unexpected, here are some stories I think you’ll be seeing:

  • Norwegian immigration into the upper Midwest
  • The geology of the Driftless area (a small patch of Iowa and Wisconsin that was not touched by the glaciers)
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, don’t touch that dial.

* * *

Last week, the universe slapped me up the side of the head twice about the fact that I’m not very good at promoting my newsletter.  For those of you who don’t know, in addition to writing posts about history tidbits, book reviews and road trips twice a week here on the Margins, I also write a newsletter.  It comes out twice a month and the content is completely different than what I post here.  Instead of telling stories from history, I explore the who, what, when, and how of writing history.     Here’s a link to the most recent issue, with a place to subscribe if you’d like to see how the sausage is made:


Great Cities Through Travelers’ Eyes

If you’ve spent any time here on the Margins, you know that I love to go traveling with My Own True Love, and that I love to share stories about our travels with the Marginalia. In fact, we’re heading out soon for another stint on our on-going efforts to drive the Great River Road from the headwaters of the Mississippi in Lake Itasca, Minnesota,  to the place in Louisiana where the road finally dead-ends in industrial parks. *

But traveling as a pastime and writing blog posts about what you learn is different than Traveling on a larger scale and writing a Travel’s Account.

In Great Cities Through Travelers’ Eyes, historian and former editor of History Today magazine Peter Furtado has compiled an armchair travelers’ delight. Building on the idea that cities are the most enduring of all historical artifacts, he presents travelers’ accounts of 38 cities around the world, from Alexandria to Washington, D.C.

Furtado outlines his selection criteria clearly for the reader. All the cities still exist: no romantic musings on the ruins of Persepolis or Machu Picchu are included. He does not use descriptions by a writer native to a city. For example, Furtado gives us Dickens’s opinions of New York and Rome, but turns to writers from Switzerland, China, the United States (via France) and Germany for impressions of London. He does not draw on travel accounts later than the 1980s because he believes that cheap airfares and the Internet have fundamentally changed the experience of travel and travel writing.**  Within those criteria, he carefully chooses a wide range of sources from across the centuries and around the world. Men and women. Merchants, conquerors, explorers, pilgrims, journalists and monarchs. (Queen Victoria was mildly pleased with Paris.)

Even without entries from the last 30 years, Furtado gives the reader a complex, and sometimes opinionated, picture of cities through time. Presented chronologically, the entries for each city function as a shaft in a literary archeological dig, allowing the reader to see both change and continuity in how a city is portrayed. The entries also give us an anecdotal history of travel itself, pre-TripAdvisor and and Google Earth.

It’s enough to make you want to pack a trunk and make a Grand Tour.  In the short run, however, I’ll make do with a small suitcase, a work bag, a cooler and a road trip.

* We started the project in 2014 with a four-day weekend in Illinois.  We’ve done two big stints since then.  And I’ve shared it with you all the way–or at least most of the way.  (I seem to have missed blogging about the last few spots we stopped at in 2015, including the national battlefield at Vicksburg.)  If you’re interested, you can find those posts by searching for Great River Road in the box in the sidebar.  (If you’re reading this in your email, click the headline.  This will take you to the browser, with the search function, and other goodies.)

**While this may, in fact, be true it also carries a whiff of an old guy complaining that the world has changed and is consequently going to hell.  Which may also be true, but “old guys” of all ages and genders have been making this complaint for as long as we have written records of individuals’ opinions.


Much of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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