Carl G.O. Hansen My Minneapolis 1956

91. Leif Erikson Comes to the Front


A great deal of energy and effort has been given to obtaining general recognition of Leif Erikson as the Discoverer of America. Inasmuch as the Norwegian National League lent much support to the movement, here might be the proper place to give an account of its progress, especially so because Ola Johann Særvold, writer and lecturer, one of the most ardent champions of the cause, at one time was president of the National League.

The first local Leif Erikson festival that I can recall took place at Normanna Hall November 11, 1906. The sponsors, I believe, were the Sons of Norway lodges. The main address was delivered by Prof. Julius E. Olson of the University of Wisconsin. The Norwegian Dramatic Society put on a very creditable performance of Ibsen's "Hærmændene paa Helgeland" (The Vikings at Helgeland).

For some years nothing much was heard about Leif Erikson. The Supreme Lodge of Sons of Norway in 1918 instructed all local lodges to "observe a Leif Erikson Day at such time as each lodge finds it most suitable."

Mention must be made of a non-Norwegian in Minneapolis who in the twenties was vitally interested in the Leif Erikson movement. Dr. Harry A. Bellows, an American of the old stock, as a student at Harvard had devoted himself to the Icelandic and Old Norse as well as modern Scandinavian literature. For a while he was editor of the Northwestern Miller and being very musical, also edited the program notes for the Symphony orchestra concerts.

Dr. Bellows was one of the main speakers at the first really big Leif Erikson celebration, which was put on in the Minneapolis Auditorium in 1923. Other speakers were Dr. Solon J. Buck, superintendent of the State Historical Society, and Judge T. O. Gilbert, the supreme president of Sons of Norway. Dr. C. M. Roan presided. Governor J. A. O. Preus, by a proclamation, made September 29 that year a Leif Erikson Day for Minnesota.

The Norse-American Centennial in 1925, where the President of the United States so unreservedly gave recognition to Leif Erikson as the Discoverer of America, did much to kindle interest in this subject among the heretofore luke-warm.

The next year a Leif Erikson celebration at the Auditorium brought out a large crowd. Edward J. Lee, who was somewhat of a politician, invited as the main speaker Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, who then was a national figure, largely because of his stand against the United States having anything to do with the League of Nations. This aroused a great deal of criticism. It was not considered wise or proper to bring in a politician for such an occasion. Most of his talk was about what he thought would be the dire results of the United States adhering to the League of Nations and the World Court. Fortunately the situation was somewhat relieved by a scholarly talk given by Dr. Bellows. It was also largely due to the influence of Dr. Bellows that W. F. Webster, the superintendent of schools, encouraged pupils to choose as a topic for essays: "Why Leif Erikson Interests Me."

The Norwegian National League from its rebirth in 1927 became quite a factor in the Leif Erikson movement locally. That year the League made its debut with a Leif Erikson memorial program at the Lyceum Theater. The principal speaker was Rasmus B. Anderson of Madison, Wis., a prime mover in the Leif Erikson cause. On the program also appeared Captain Gerhard Folgerø, who the year before had taken his Viking ship "Leif Erikson" across the Atlantic from Norway, following much the same course as did the Discoverer of America.

In 1928, a Leif Erikson festival for the first time in Minneapolis was conducted on the real Leif Erikson Day, October 9. The Norwegian National League had a large crowd for this festival held at Eagles Hall with Pastor D. G. Ristad as the principal speaker.

Much impetus was lent the Leif Erikson movement when on May 10, 1929, Governor Walter Kohler of Wisconsin affixed his signature to a bill by the legislature of that state making the 9th of October "Leif Erikson Day." "When it (October 9) does not fall upon a school day," the law says, "the school day nearest such date is designated as Leif Erikson Day. On such a day one half hour may be devoted in the school to instruction and appropriate exercises relative to and in commemoration of the life and history of Leif Erikson and the principles and ideals he fostered."

The Sagas do not give the exact date of Leif Erikson's landfall in America, only state that it was in the fall of the year. At the suggestion of Christian A. Hoen, Edgerton, Wis., October 9 was settled upon, inasmuch as that already was a historic date in the annals of Norwegians in America, the ship "Restaurationen" arriving in New York on that date in 1825 with its first organized party of Norwegian immigrants.

The Norwegian National League in Minneapolis took the initiative in getting the Minnesota legislature to adopt a law of the same import and contents as the Wisconsin law making October 9 Leif Erikson Day. Such a bill was signed by Governor Floyd B. Olson, April 7, 1931, in the presence of Ola Johann Særvold, president of the Minneapolis Norwegian National League, and two members of the legislature that had been the main sponsors of the bill, Senator A. O. Devold and representative J. O. Melby. The pen which the Governor used in affixing his signature to the bill was the one with which Særvold had written his pamphlet, "The Discovery of America," which was distributed to all members of the legislature and no doubt did much to create sentiment for the bill. Sen. Devold, born in Stockholm, Sweden, of Norwegian parentage, was practicing law in Minneapolis. He had served in the house two terms when in 1918 he was elected to the state senate, serving there at least six terms. Melby, born in Børseskogn, Børsa, Norway, was a resident of Oklee, Minn., and served in the house at least four terms.

These developments put more life into the Leif Erikson movement. Nordkap Lodge No. 8, Sons of Norway, St. Paul, launched the idea of a Leif Erikson monument on the Capitol Grounds even before passage of the bill, but when it seemed certain that it would pass. On March 17 of the same year a group of Twin City people organized the Leif Erikson Monument Association with Prof. M. O. Wee as president. May 7 this association was incorporated.

Shortly after adoption of the Wisconsin law about a Leif Erikson Day, Leif Erikson Memorial Association of America was organized in Madison, Wis., with C. A. Hoen as president. This association largely has been instrumental in stirring up sentiment in other states. At the present writing October 9 has been made an official Leif Erikson Day in seven States (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, and California) and one Canadian Province (Saskatchewan).

Minnesota having gotten its Leif Erikson Day, the Norwegian National League that same year (1931) put on an elaborate program in the Metropolitan Theater. Presiding was Ola Johann Særvold, the League president, and speakers were Governor Walter Kohler of Wisconsin and Governor Floyd B. Olson of Minnesota, the two first governors to sign bills making October 9 Leif Erikson Day in their respective States.

The next three years there were no big Leif Erikson celebrations. However, the National League provided convocation speakers on Leif Erikson Day in the high schools and talks on the subject over the radio.

A big lift was given the Leif Erikson movement in 1935 when a congressional resolution, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, made October 9 a national Leif Erikson Day, also "urging that the day hereafter be observed in all States of the Union." The Norwegian National League and the Monument Association combined that year to observe Leif Erikson Day in a big way. There was a parade in the afternoon, and in the evening about five thousand people assembled in the Municipal Auditorium, where Wilhelm Morgenstierne, Norway's minister to the United States, was the principal speaker. Dr. C. M. Roan presided.

The next year, Leif Erikson Day was celebrated with a banquet at the West Hotel. Ola Johann Særvold was the toastmaster. The main speaker was Valdimar Bjørnson. Talks also were given by Consul E. H. Hobe and Edward J. Lee. The latter took occasion to state that the real momentum was given the efforts to establish a Leif Erikson Day by the festival in 1926, which was addressed by Senator Borah.

On August 7, 1938, the National League, the Monument Association and the lodges of Sons of Norway and Daughters of Norway joined for a Leif Erikson outing in Nokomis Park, where the Icelanders were brought into the foreground, among the speakers being Valdimar Bjørnson, his father the veteran chairman of the State's board of tax appeals Gunnar B. Bjørnson, and the Icelandic-born Pastor H. B. Thorgrimsen. Brief talks also were given by Vice-Consul Harry Eberhardt and Dr. Eyvind Klaveness.

On Leif Erikson Day in 1941, all seats were taken in the Central Lutheran church for a program sponsored by the Joint Committee of Sons of Norway. The main speaker was Major Ole Reistad, commander of the Little Norway training camp for Norwegian flyers in Canada, who vividly described the fighting in Norway after the invasion, through the valleys and up to Tromsø and Narvik.

The Joint Committee of Sons of Norway in 1942 put on a Leif Erikson program in the Norwegian Memorial church with Dr. Sverre Norberg as the main speaker.

The Monument Association was very much hampered in its efforts to collect funds for the monument during World War II. In April 1942 Prof. M. O. Wee died. He had been president of the Monument Association since its inception. Dr. Eyvind Klaveness was elected to succeed him.

As soon as the war was over the Monument Association took hold in dead earnest. A Greater Leif Erikson Committee was created with Dr. P. M. Glasoe of St. Olaf College as chairman. The Supreme Lodge of Sons of Norway as well as the Twin City Joint Committee of Sons of Norway decided officially to support the movement. Among Minneapolitans very active in the work was Martin B. Bjerkness, chairman of the finance committee. Site for the monument had already been secured on the Capitol grounds, and the Norwegian-born Minneapolis sculptor John K. Daniels had been commissioned to model the statue.

In 1945 the Joint Committee of Sons of Norway put on a Leif Erikson festival at the Lyceum Theater for the benefit of the monument. Speakers were Supreme President E. B. Hauke and George Grim of the Star-Journal. On Leif Erikson Day in 1946 the Monument Association, the National League, the lodges of Sons of Norway and Daughters of Norway, the male choruses, Norse-American Centennial Daughters and Scandinavian Sisters of America joined for a festival at the Central Lutheran church, Dr. P. M. Glasoe presiding. The main address was given by Pastor E. S. Hjortland. Other speakers were Jarle B. S. Leirfallom, Governor Edward J. Thye, Mayor Hubert Humphrey, and Dr. Klaveness. In 1948 the Leif Erikson celebration also was put on in the Central Lutheran church. Speakers were Pastor Hjortland and Dr. Glasoe. Pastor B. E. Bergesen presided. As told earlier in this story the Minneapolis singers in 1948 made their 17th of May celebration one for the benefit of the monument fund.

The promoters several years in advance decided to make dedication of the statue the Norwegian contribution to the observance of Minnesota's territorial centennial.

Sunday, October 9, 1949, Minnesota had its greatest Leif Erikson Day on record. On a spacious triangle opposite the beautiful State Capitol, within the walls of which eighteen years earlier the Legislature had proclaimed that October 9 was to be Leif Erikson Day for Minnesota, John K. Daniels' heroic statue was unveiled, dedicated, and presented to the State of Minnesota. It stood, and stands, only a stone's throw from where Italian-Americans some years earlier placed a statue of Cristoforo Colombo. About three thousand people were present for the exercises.

The ceremonies began with presentation of the colors by the Viking Division, 47th Infantry of the Minnesota Guard. Master of ceremonies was Valdimar Bjørnson, vice-consul for Iceland who also delivered a brief address, "In the Year One Thousand." The statue was unveiled by Mrs. O. E. Brack, first vice-president of the Monument Association. The dedicatory address was delivered by Dr. E. Klaveness, president of the Monument Association, and the acceptance address by Governor Luther W. Youngdahl. Dr. P. M. Glasoe, second vice- president of the Monument Association, introduced to the audience the sculptor John K. Daniels, who also had sculptured the close-by statue of U. S. Senator Knute Nelson. Brief addresses were given by Consul General Siqveland, Colonel Bernt Balchen, Norway's Minister of Defense Jens Chr. Hauge, and Ambassador Wilhelm Morgenstierne. The United Norwegian Male Chorus under the direction of Frederick Wick sang Oscar Borg's elaborate choral work "Leif Erikson," "Norrønakvadet" by Grieg and "America the Beautiful." The program opened with invocation by Pastor Joseph Simonson, chaplain of the Minnesota Senate, and closed with benediction by Pastor Elias Rasmussen of the Norwegian Memorial church in Minneapolis. After the exercises there was an informal reception in Christ Lutheran church opposite the Capitol.

The evening prior to the dedication Consul General and Mrs. Siqveland entertained about fifty guests at a dinner at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis in honor of Ambassador Morganstierne, Minister of Defense Jens Chr. Hauge, the youthful commander of the Home Front in Norway during the war, and the Norwegian-born Col. Bernt Balchen of the U. S. Air Force.

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