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‘New Land, New Life’

By Staff | Feb 8, 2019

A new exhibit telling the story of Norwegian immigrants who settled the prairies of North Dakota and beyond a century ago opened Monday in the Austin Gallery at Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum.

Titled, “New Land, New Life: Norwegian Immigration to the Upper Midwest,” the exhibit features several different panels, each with its own theme and pictures.

The exhibit will be on display until May 4.

Panels detail topics such as education, chain migration, and the jobs immigrants to a new land held, each display bearing the logos of the Sons of Norway and the Ramsey County (MN) Historical Society.

Prairie Village Museum Executive Director Stephanie Steinke wrote in an email to the Tribune, “This exhibit is part of the (Prairie Village Museum) staying open year round and working toward being a regional cultural center. The Museum has plans to host more travelling exhibits, lecture series, and more kids camps, and we are so excited about the possibilities for the Museum!”

The exhibit follows a three-month-long display honoring German-Russian women homesteading on the Great Plains. Another exhibit displaying stories of Germans from Russia is planned to run May 13-September 27.

“New Land, New Life” traces the history of Norwegian exploration and migration from the days of the Vikings, through the challenging economic conditions of the 19th century, which led many to decide to leave their homeland for better opportunities elsewhere.

One panel explains how a group of 52 emigrants sailed to the United States in 1825 seeking religious and economic freedoms. After arriving in New York, the group moved west, settling first in Wisconsin, and eventually moving to settlements along the rivers of southeastern Minnesota.

Letters from relatives in the US and the 1862 Homestead Act motivated more Norwegians to seek their fortunes in a new country, and immigration from Norway peaked in 1882, according to information in the exhibit.

“later 1800s in Norway were very tough,” Steinke wrote. “Land was scarce, economic disparity was rising, and food shortages were common. Many people decided to leave to find jobs, food security, and their own land.”

The immigrants gradually moved westward, settling most of the western edge of Minnesota and later proving up homesteads in the Dakota Territory. Although many of the immigrants preferred farming as an occupation, those who stayed near the forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin pursued work in the lumber industry. Others worked in fisheries in the Great Lakes, or became entrepreneurs.

Another panel describes how the Norwegian immigrants sought to escape rigid Norwegian social classes, where only the eldest male inherited family property. Additionally, the fact there was no state church in the United States meant freedom of worship for the new Americans.

“American” was a label the new immigrants preferred for themselves and their children; one panel describes how most Norwegian settlers sent their children to public schools, insisting their children learn English and adapt to American customs.

However, many panels describe how the immigrants maintained their cultural identities as well.

One part of Norwegian-American culture emerging in the Upper Midwest appears on a panel titled, “Humor,” surprising those who see Norwegians as staid, quiet folks.

The unique, self-deprecating style of levity appears in “Ole and Lena” and “Ole and Sven” jokes described on the panel. A comic strip drawn by Peter J. Rosendahl show how details such as the baby of the family can slip by as an extended group of aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents pack up their car to move.

Steinke said of the museum, “We’reopen 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Friday and by appointment on the weekends. People can arrange appointments by calling us or emailing, or using the website contact page.”

“We’re working on some (other) events and we will update as things firm up,” Steinke added. “We hope that people will enjoy learning about the experiences of others. In this case, many people in the area have Scandinavian and Norwegian ancestry. These stories will be familiar to many people who know their own family’s emigration story.”

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