Finding Norwegian roots in Minnesota
WILLMAR -- When early immigrants from eastern Norway organized a reunion in 1913 in Fargo, N.D. to celebrate their common heritage, they gathered in the woods for a group photograph.
Old men wearing suits, women wearing long black dresses and hats and squirmy children who are blurred in movement are frozen in a moment of time when home still really meant Norway.
Descendents of people from that same region of eastern Norway will host a similar reunion this week in Willmar.
Among the stacks of books and microfilms of church records tracing Norwegian genealogy that participants will pore over, there will be photographs -- like the one taken in Fargo - depicting those early reunions.
While the clothing will be different, the purpose of this week's "stevne," or gathering, is the same as it was nearly 100 years ago - to connect with people who share a historical home community and preserve the Norwegian culture so it can be passed onto descendants.
Norwegian-American organizations known as a "bygdelag" includes members with ancestral roots or current ties with a particular region of Norway.
This weekend, two separate bygdelags - Solorlag of America and Romerikslaget i Amerika - will be holding a joint gathering Wednesday through Saturday at the Willmar Holiday Inn and Conference Center.
It's the first time the two groups have held a joint gathering, said Andy Berg, of Willmar, and vice president of Solorlag of America, which includes descendents of early emigrants from the Hedmark region of eastern Norway.
Romerikslaget i Amerika has members with ties to the area around Oslo that's called Romerike, also in eastern Norway.
With declining numbers in both organizations, it made sense to collaborate, said LaVonne Hookom, of Willmar, who is secretary of Solorlag of America.
"Their numbers were declining and their numbers were declining," she said. Meeting together is "worth a try."
They will hold separate business and board meetings but will conduct workshops on genealogy, take tours of local Norwegian historical sites, watch lefse and hardanger demonstrations and hold a banquet together.
One of the biggest draws will be the research room that will include donated and purchased historical documents, including the prized church records of births, baptisms, weddings and deaths that will allow participants an opportunity to trace their family's history. Books with farm records and even ship documents that show when families left Norway will also be available.
Solorlag of America has its collection stored in the basement of their genealogist. On Tuesday volunteer members will arrive at the elderly woman's home and load up "tubs and tubs and tubs" of documents that will fill entire rental moving truck, said Berg.
The items will be unloaded at the conference center and set up in a special convention room for participants to use. "They can access it all hours of the night," said Berg.
People with experience searching records and deciphering the flourish of a pastor's handwriting will be on hand to help beginning genealogists find information. Many of the records are written in Norwegian.
Several individuals from Norway will also be at the gathering to offer their input.
Among the tours, meetings and serious study of genealogy that will go on, Hookom said the gathering is also a time to drink a little coffee and relish a shared love of Norway.
"It's a place where you can talk about Norway as much as you want and nobody cares," she said.