In the darkest days of World War II, their country occupied by Nazi Germany, Norwegians gathered in silent protest each July 4 around a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Oslo.
The large bust had been given to the people of Norway by the people of North Dakota in 1914 to mark the centennial of Norway's adoption of a democratic constitution modeled partly on the U.S. Constitution.
"Thousands of Norwegians would gather around the statue, their heads bowed in silence and prayer," said Rick Collin, communication and education director of the North Dakota Historical Society and coordinator of the state's Lincoln Bicentennial observances. "Typically, the Germans forbade any public gatherings or demonstrations, but they did not halt this annual event."
Lincoln was a ready symbol of liberty and love of country, Collin said. And in the difficult early days of the Civil War, he had turned his sights to how the reunified country might grow once the war was won -- signing into law the Homestead Act of 1862, which enabled thousands of Norwegians to take up land in Dakota Territory.
This summer, 200 years since Lincoln's birth, another expedition of North Dakotans will gather at the statue to celebrate the historic ties.
Sponsored by North Dakota Horizons magazine, UND's Nordic Initiative and Brekke Travel of Grand Forks, the commemorative tour will include visits to Sarpsborg, Grand Forks' sister city in Norway, and the Western Norway Emigration Center near Bergen, where a prairie church from Brampton, N.D., has been reconstructed as a memorial to the emigrants and their faith.
The schedule also includes a reception at the American Embassy in Oslo, an Independence Day celebration by the Lincoln statue and a visit to the Norwegian Emigrant Museum in Hamar, which includes a settler's cabin donated by the people of Kindred, N.D.
"The history of our connection is so interesting, and we're trying with this to reconnect," Char Brekke said.
A distinct people
Gov. Louis B. Hanna led the first delegation, which included Grand Forks Herald founder and editor, George B. Winship, and immigrant Walsh County homesteaders Haakon and Elise Skjerven.
The Skjervens' son, William, carried the U.S. flag during July 4 ceremonies by the bust in Oslo's Frogner Park.
"Among the distinct people who have come to North Dakota from Europe, there are nearly a third of the state's residents who came directly from Norway or are the children of Norwegian parents," Hanna said at the dedication. "They built the towns and during the years they have done their share in building and making North Dakota an outstanding state."
According to a translation of contemporary Norwegian newspaper accounts, Hanna noted that during the American Civil War, a Union regiment from Wisconsin, "comprised exclusively of Scandinavians and mostly Norwegians, has one of the most honorable records of any regiment ... that took part in the war."
Gov. Hanna's idea
In a time before junkets became common, Hanna was away for six weeks -- skipping the 1914 primary election, where he was re-nominated. After Norway, he and the others also visited Sweden, Denmark and -- just weeks before the outbreak of World War I -- Germany and England, hoping to promote immigration to North Dakota.
Hanna, a native of Pennsylvania, had visited the battlefield at Gettysburg in 1913, Collin said. "He saw a bust of Lincoln there, and he knew that people in North Dakota and Norway would see in Lincoln a symbol of equality, independence and equal opportunity."
At the governor's suggestion, the Legislature had appropriated money to commission the bust of Lincoln by Valley City, N.D., sculptor Paul Fjelde, who was just 21 at the time. (A replica sculpture stands on the grounds outside the Traill County Courthouse in Hillsboro, N.D.)
Thousands of people joined in the dedication in Frogner Park, and many thousands more jammed streets outside the Storting, Norway's parliament, to help the Americans celebrate their Independence Day.
Estimates at the time put the number of Norwegian-Americans visiting their homeland that July at 20,000.
The turnout at this year's festivities won't be in that neighborhood, but Brekke said it will include David Skjerven, grandson of the 1914 flag bearer, who as a child growing up in Park River, N.D., heard stories of that event from his grandfather. A grandson of sculptor Fjelde also plans to attend, as does former Vice President Walter Mondale, Brekke said.
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