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The Bygdelag Movement
    by Odd Sverre Løvoll (Volume 25: Page 3)

The exodus of people from the Old World to the New in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries represents one of the largest folk migrations of all time. Norway’s participation in the Atlantic crossing is not remarkable in quantitative terms, but seen in relationship to her population, it was a blood-letting — a great loss of men and women in their most productive years. From the time of the arrival of the Sloop folk, the first immigrants in 1825, to 1915, official records show that about 800,000 Norwegians migrated to America. This figure is more than four fifths of Norway’s total number of inhabitants in 1801. The heaviest drain on people occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the country retained less than one half of its natural increase. In the 1880’s, eleven out of every thousand Norwegians were leaving annually. Comparative figures for other national groups would be six Swedes, six Englishmen, four Germans, and sixteen Irishmen. Accordingly, Norway has proportionately given more of her sons and daughters to the American melting pot than any other country except Ireland {1}

An estimate of the combined number of people of [4] Norwegian birth or ancestry in America at any given time would tend to be speculative, the margin for inaccuracy increasing with the addition of each new generation. United States census returns account only for those born in Norway and their children, later generations being considered native Americans. In 1925 O. M. Norlie attempted to calculate the size of the Norwegian stock in the New World at ten-year intervals, beginning in 1880. Counting five generations for the original immigrants, he computed a total of 961,901 in 1900. By 1920 his estimate reached 2,168,355, making no allowance for those of mixed lineage. {2}

Norlie’s figures need not be too far afield. It is, however, more valid and of greater significance to ask for the number of those who retained the native tongue. Only they, regardless of distance from national origin, could serve as an adequate foundation for immigrant institutions. Many more would, of course, demonstrate a keen interest in things Norwegian. The census figures provide the sole available large-scale data. Knowledge of the number of first- and second-generation immigrants indicates the size of the group closest to the old-country background. In 1910 there were 402,587 living Norwegian immigrants — a high point revealing an increase of more than 60,000 from 1900. To the former number may be added 607,267 persons who reported one or both parents as Norwegian-born. {3}

The group of foreign-born, a large percentage of their children, and an indeterminate number of later generations constitute the body of Norwegian-speaking Americans. The 1940 census, which tried to determine the number of speakers of foreign languages, reports that as many as 658,220 Americans declared Norwegian to be the language of their childhood home. Such applicable statistics, when seen in the light of the [5] adverse effects World War I and subsequent developments had on the use of immigrant languages, make it possible to sense the size of the Norwegian-speaking group in the first decades of the century. From it, efforts to retain old-world language, culture, and traditions could emanate. {4}

Taking only the size of the immigrant body into account, it becomes evident that Norwegian migration left a clear imprint on the character of the American people. This judgment especially pertains to the western Upper Midwest, which became the home of the bulk of immigrants. The principal area of settlement extended from northern Illinois northwestward into Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and eastern Montana. Westward it spread into Iowa and as far as northeastern Nebraska.

The majority of immigrants made their livelihood on farms scattered throughout the region, or they lived in the many small towns and villages that dotted the countryside and served as community centers. Norwegian Americans appeared as the most rurally disposed of all the immigrant peoples. The promise of land, made free and available to every sincere settler by the Homestead Act of 1862, was the incitement that caused the immigrant frontiersmen to advance with, and sometimes head, the steady trek westward. They tackled the wind-swept prairie with an intensity of purpose, an abundance of courage, and a sturdiness of character — demonstrating national traits that were an indispensable asset in the days of pioneering. {5}

Urban colonies developed early in such metropolitan areas as Chicago and Minneapolis; after 1900, large enclaves of Norwegians emerged in Brooklyn on the Atlantic seaboard and in Seattle on the Pacific. Settlement on the west coast continued to increase in the twentieth century, especially around Puget Sound, and in the interior Norwegians [6] participated in the extension of the American frontier into the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. {6}

Even so, the Middle West most clearly exhibits the immigrant experience. Social isolation in the many close-knit rural communities made the preservation of the Norwegian past easier than in areas where American society was dominant in supreme degree. Language and national personality were shielded and more easily retained in the regions of heavy settlement, where a feeling of solidarity was more clearly expressed. The Middle West became the mainspring of the most outstanding social, cultural, religious, and political activity based on old-world tradition and background.

The departure from the homeland had an unmistakable finality about it. The emigrants entered upon a road of no return. K. G. Nilsen recalls his mother’s saying when he was a child, "I would rather have you dead than see you off to America." {7} The heartbreaking goodby, the conviction that the birthplace and all it embodied was lost forever, and the realization that accustomed ways were no longer possible left deep and painful scars. The immigrants’ experiences imbedded the home region and all its associations securely in the mind and heart. The years of toil, loneliness, and disillusion, far from their own kin, added luster and attraction to their recollections.

American society, in the rough and unfinished form expressed in frontier regions, contrasted strongly with their memories of the homeland. Many had left Norway at an age when the duties and hardships of adult life had not fully come to bear upon them. The idealized conditions they remembered were those that centered around the security of parental care, the happy playgrounds of childhood, and the sturdy character of an old-world society. Their thoughts of Norway were filled with deep love and sympathy; letters kept [7] these sentiments vivid and uppermost in their minds. Homesickness, insecurity, and a sense of inferiority when confronted with persons of older American stock made them cling to bygone values and ways.

The immigrants were not content with merely flocking together in settlements of fellow Norwegians: They took one step further and formed colonies with people from the same valley, fjord, or parish in Norway. Thus there came into being in this country Halling settlements, Trønder settlements, settlements of immigrants from Telemark, Setesdal, Nordland, and other definable districts in the old country. The steady movement westward had the effect of intermixing the immigrant stock, but, even so, certain groups tended to predominate in individual areas. The cultural uniformity of the communities was an additional shelter in a strange, at times hostile, environment. Another apparent advantage was the effortless retention of localized aspects of their national heritage that these conditions favored.

Time and distance determined the amount of social intermingling — much of it advanced by church activities. The immigrants did not attend services wholly for religious purposes. The church edifice was a gathering place for new settlers from miles around, and as in Norway the church green became a place to seek out friends and relatives, to exchange news of family and community affairs, to attend to urgent business, and to reminisce about times past. Picnics, conventions, celebrations, and weddings served to satisfy the social needs of the immigrants.

The coming of the twentieth century marked a gradual emergence from the poverty and deprivations of pioneer life. Relative prosperity produced a broadening of interests. Not all energy was now consumed in the everyday struggle for existence. The extended view also reduced the position of the church as a social center. These developments gave the immigrants a sense of having made a place for themselves in America, a strong conviction that their background and [8] make-up were fully equal in quality to those of other ethnic groups, and a conscious — and, on occasion, exultant — pride in their status as Norwegians. These sentiments were helped along by the striking success of immigrant institutions, by the fact that leaders among them openly boasted of their national origin, and by the many persons of Norwegian ancestry who made distinctive careers in American society. In the period from 1900 to World War I, enthusiasm culminated in a magnificent flowering of Norwegian-American cultural and social endeavors.

Events in Norway added fervor to the growth of patriotism. Continued emigration produced a steady flow of interested promoters and stimulated earlier groups of settlers to display and to promote Norwegianness in the New World. Still another source of pride and encouragement was the many individuals of Norwegian birth who gained international recognition in varied fields. They became eager spokesmen for the fatherland at a time when it was in a struggle for full national independence. The successful overthrow of Swedish dominance in the twin monarchy, with the emergence of a distinct national identity in 1905, created waves of elation that deluged Norwegians both at home and abroad. The time seemed ripe for shaping a Norwegian America. {8}

A flurry of organizational activity characterized the period after 1905. It was an effort on the part of the immigrants to unite in order to preserve and to strengthen the cultural bonds with Norway. Singing societies, male choruses, library and debate groups, athletic clubs, and a number of others spoke for a wide variety of causes and interests. Norwegian Americans had been organizing from early days, but not on the same scale or with such wide appeal. There was a general tendency toward the development of associations that took on a regional or national role and established district and local units. There was a strong desire to reach all countrymen. [9] Such groups as Sons of Norway and the Norwegian Society of America are good examples of the trend. {9}

The bygdelag concept must in this connection be considered a unique aspect of a larger Norwegian-American movement. The launching of the bygdelag demonstrated the deep consciousness of regional origin that the immigrants harbored. The term in reference to immigrant organizational activity developed in American usage. The first part of the compound, bygd, has no precise equivalent in the English language. It has derived from the verb bygge, to build, and hence a bygd would be a built-up place or settlement. In Norway bygd might refer to a topographically and socially defined community of farmsteads, a definition which represents the widest usage. It could, however, also be used for the administrative township (herred), the parish (sogn), or even a group of these units. To a Norwegian, the word connoted a sense of sharing, of living together, and represented a unified area of customs and traditions. The term lag in the context of the compound means society or even societies. An American bygdelag would thus be a society of immigrants from a particular settlement, group of settlements, some general district, fjord, or valley in Norway, and of their descendants in this country. It might consist of people from a few to a great number of communities referred to as bygd in Norway. {10}

Historically, the movement falls within the twentieth century, and it has generally been sustained by first- and second-generation immigrants. Geographically, activity has largely confined itself to the Middle West, not spreading east of Chicago. On the west coast, the same considerations that originally gave birth to the idea produced local activity by [10] independent groups or by divisions of the Middle West lag. Eventually independent organizations also developed in the Canadian provinces and ultimately merged with the American movement. The individual bygdelag attempted to appeal to all immigrants from the region they represented. They therefore declared themselves as national societies at their inception. Some of them were, however, nation-wide associations only in name, in the sense that their membership was limited to an interested group in one particular region or urban area. {11}

The immigrants from Valdres, a district in the central interior of Norway, inaugurated the bygdelag. A proportionately heavy emigration created large colonies of these people in tile Middle West. A reunion of immigrants who stemmed from Valdres took place on June 25, 1899, in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis. Its marked success, one reporter estimating 800 present, made a repetition of the experiment inevitable. {12} Annual meetings continued to attract much attention, but although the subject of permanent organization had already been broached before the first gathering, it was not effected before the Minneapolis reunion in August, 1902. The name given the new society was Valdres Samband (Valdres Union). {13} The word used to describe the annual or semiannual reunions was stevne, usually in the form Valdresstevne, and later with the coming of other lag, also Hallingstevne, Telestevne, and so on. There was not general approval of permanency, some persons thinking this too clannish, others finding it a deterrent to broader Norwegian-American movements. But the strong desire to ensure such conventions or stevne in the future encouraged those who emerged as leaders to adopt a lasting framework. [11]

A productive precedent had been established. All other contingents of Norwegian immigrants shaped their groups along the same lines as the Valdres folk. At all reunions there was a profusion of speech making and storytelling, the latter often in the popular epigrammatic tradition of rural Norway. All gatherings practiced community singing and listened to individual performers or groups; many had folk music performed by capable fiddlers; some had demonstrations of folk dances; generally there was some kind of religious devotion or church service. Exhibitions and displays of arts and crafts aroused interest. Local and national dishes were a part of the traditional banquet, and visiting and reminiscing continued throughout the stevne, which lasted from one to three days. The informal fellowship was the most cherished aspect of the gatherings.

Valdres Samband was widely accepted and gradually became the envy of other immigrant groups. Even so, the bygdelag idea attained prominence only slowly. It began "like a whisper in the field on a summer’s day" (lik ei susing i kornet sumardag), as the eminent lag historian Torkel Oftelie expressed it. {14} For several years the many attempts to emulate the Valdres people bore no fruit in spite of an extensive agitation in the Norwegian-American press and sincere efforts by groups and individuals. Some explanation may be offered: the cautiousness and conservatism of the farmer, or even Norwegian modesty. There was also a measure of distrust of secular societies. In any case, the requisite leadership was lacking.

In 1907 the bygdelag movement entered upon its period of greatest growth. Leaders who believed in and were willing to assume responsibility appeared in all groups. Simultaneously, other conditions favored the organization of new societies. Prerequisite to the life of any bygdelag was increased mobility. Money was available to pay railroad fares, there [12] were better roads, and, finally, the automobile was coming into use. The gradual adoption of the automobile encouraged for the first time large conventions of widely dispersed people.

The appearance of Telelaget and Hallinglaget heralded a new advance in 1907. {15} Both lag represented well-defined regions — Telemark and Hallingdal — that had sent a large number of their people to America. The term lag appeared as a part of the very names of the new organizations, and the designation bygdelag became universally accepted. Suffixed to the name of the society was the definite article et, corresponding to the English the. Telelaget would thus be the Tele Society, Hallinglaget, the Hailing Society or the Society for Hallings. Later groups took up the same naming policy. {16}

A chronological outline of the movement would include five new lag in 1908. Sognalaget showed that the idea had caught on among immigrants from the coastal regions of Norway. Trønderlaget represented a new idea: it emerged as an expression of unity among people from a whole diocese (stift) . Few groups encountered so many difficulties as the Trønders before their lag achieved a viable and permanent form. Their halting start defied the proud slogan of many of its promoters: "It won’t amount to anything before the Trønders arrive" (Dæ bli ‘it no taa før Trønderan kjem) . Later in 1908 Nordlandslaget assembled immigrants from the three northernmost counties (amt; after 1918, fylke) . Immigrants from Setesdal, one of the most distinctive and isolated of Norway’s valleys, formed their society in 1909 along with three other groups. The movement was coming to represent both the small and the large districts of the homeland; an infectious idea was taking [13] on the proportions of an epidemic among all segments of the people. {17}

As the individual lag organized, elected an executive board, and drew up a constitution, the members had to consider their status and also their short- and long-range objectives. A perusal of the various constitutions reveals lofty ideals and ambitious programs, besides an emphasis on the social and sentimental considerations that had first promoted the idea. The lag endeavored, of course, to foster and maintain a feeling of kinship and co-operation among immigrants from a common ancestral home region. Furthermore, they desired to preserve and strengthen ties with this locality. They worked to retain and enrich inherited cultural values in the fields of language, literature, history, and art, and to create a knowledge and appreciation of these values among their members. Common resolves of the lag also expressed ambitious plans to collect, preserve, and publish biographical and historical matter from the pioneer period. Other more specific purposes and goals might be stressed by individual societies. {18}

By 1913 all major national lag had been organized — 31 in all. At this time Oslolaget, comprising people from the capital, joined the sisterhood. {19} Later other city groups organized. An exact number of lag would to a degree depend upon an exact definition. The lag under consideration are those that were national in appeal, but a number of other societies, operating as sub-lag representing smaller districts, are almost indistinguishable from the national associations. In addition, chapters [14] — local lag, and in some instances state lag — also developed. The number of such small organizations is very large. Stavanger Amt Laget also evolved sub-lag for the different districts or parishes in the home region. Each of these groups had separate reunions during the convention of the national society. Thus it can easily be seen that a precise definition of bygdelag cannot be made.

There can be no doubt that the movement — from year to year, directly and indirectly — touched a large number of people, or that it consequently stands out as a major development. It is evident that if one considers all activity pertaining to bygdelag groups, the total number of people involved is much greater than if one (as often has been done) confines the estimate to the national reunions. In 1929, at a time when participation was decreasing, John Hjeilum of Skandinaven gave the total attendance for all national conventions as 50,000. His figure was based on a tour of the Middle West and visits to meetings of a large number of societies, perhaps thirty-five or forty. L. M. Gimmestad, one of the pillars of Nordfjordlaget, thought that about 75,000 individuals annually came under the direct influence of the lag. Indirectly, many more benefited from the lag spirit. {20}

Attendance at the individual conventions varied greatly, depending on the location of the particular stevne and the size of the group. By 1911 the bygdelag were well under way, there being then in all twenty-five societies. That year the Hallingstevne in Brooten, Minnesota, reported an astounding attendance of about 6,000. All meetings were conducted in a large tent, and the lag members stayed in homes in and around the town. Nordlandslaget attracted about 1,000 to its reunion at Thief River Falls, Minnesota; approximately 1,500 Sognings met at Madison, Wisconsin; and Trønderlaget was able to attract about 1,500 to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In the same year, a small lag like Sunnmørslaget reported about 200 at its [15] meeting in Minneapolis. Around 300 members of Hadelandslaget congregated in Como Park, St. Paul, and Mjøsenlaget had 500 at its organizing meeting in Minneapolis. At that time, attendance had not reached its peak in most societies, as the number of national lag eventually almost doubled. {21}

Co-operative efforts among existing lag began as early as 1909. The occasion was a desire to participate jointly, both in this country and in Norway, in celebrations to commemorate the centenary of the Norwegian constitution of 1814. A successful completion of the festivities, a three-day celebration at the fair grounds in St. Paul, demonstrated the desirability of a permanent common forum. In 1916 the Bygdelagenes Fællesraad (Council of Bygdelags) came into being as an advisory body and a clearinghouse for the bygdelag and the joint projects they adopted. All member societies had equal representation. The Fællesraad appeared as a further development of the spirit of fellowship and mutual confidence that the movement generated. {22}

One of the great expressions of bygd identity, and a stimulus causing a few lag to organize, was the practice of making gifts to the home district in Norway. They were presented as tokens of gratitude for the heritage the bygd had imparted, and as a means of preserving ties of kinship across the waters. Contributions were often in the nature of relief for the poor, endowment funds for the deserving needy, aid to old people, or financial support to combat the scourge of tuberculosis. These gifts demonstrate that the immigrants had not forgotten the unhappy aspects of bygd life, although the aid likely continued for a longer period of time than conditions actually warranted. Still, they reveal a genuine solidarity with, and a deep sympathy for, the welfare of the ancestral district. Nordlandslaget showed a keen understanding of actual needs when it presented [16] a rescue ship to aid fishermen plying the treacherous coast of northern Norway. Other donations had a more visible character: church organs, commemorative markers, and money for a variety of projects that had been asked for by the people at home — or suggested by the immigrants themselves.

World War I curtailed activities somewhat. Many lag canceled their annual meetings for the duration, and those that continued their regular conventions drew much smaller crowds than before. Beginning in 1920, however, there was an acceleration of activity and a resurgence of enthusiasm, although the restrictions on immigration imposed by law appeared as the handwriting on the wall.

It may be said that the bygdelag movement reached a climax in 1925. The Norse-American Centennial celebrations of that year in St. Paul, under the auspices of the associated bygdelag, was the most magnificent demonstration of Norwegian-American spirit — and an impressive expression of homage to the era that had passed. The publication of the centennial committee lists thirty-seven lag that were to participate in the commemorative ceremonies. Thus stimulated, several late corners to the sisterhood of bygdelag emerged. The total number of national societies now swelled to about fifty independent groups. {23}

In the 1920’s, despite outstanding accomplishments, there were clear signs that the lag movement was slowly losing momentum and was in fact on a downhill course. Normanden in Grand Forks, North Dakota, estimated in 1926 that less than five per cent of the membership were young people. The period after 1930 tells the familiar story of immigrant amalgamation and gradual phasing out of bygdelag activity. A goodly number of lag exist to this day, however, and many efforts and individual achievements make the period well worth systematic study. {24} [17]

The bygdelag idea did not capture the imagination of third-generation immigrants in numbers sufficient to guarantee the future of the movement. This development would seem to be inevitable. It may be alleged, however, that promotion on a grass-roots level has been neglected. Most members have shown greater concern for enjoying the reunions than for generating interest for lag objectives and programs in their children. Perhaps not much could have been done. Prevailing conditions explain why the individual lag have tended to be conservative, to cling to traditional customs and ways, and to stagnate in their image of expanded family get-togethers. The movement on the whole has failed to find a new base for its existence once the original drive — the Norwegian "self" as it appeared in the bygd at the time of immigration — weakened with the dying out of the original immigrant stock. Admittedly, many lag have shown a tenacity putting dire predictions of extinction to shame. The survival of the movement into the 1970’s is a remarkable feat in itself.

Granted that retention of immigrant identification has not been widespread in the third generation and beyond, the role played by American-born Norwegians merits special comment. They acquired an interest in the old-country bygd through new-world home relationships. The mother tongue, spoken in the family, had a special warmth and significance as the language of the most intimate and valuable experiences. English was the language of the outer shell of life — encountered in business, education, and government. Representatives of the later generations became the ardent promoters of immigrant institutions. A. A. Veblen, the great pioneer of the bygdelag movement, was a good example of the bilingual second generation. He discovered a genuine value in his heritage, developed a strong sense of identity with his ancestral home, had his appreciation fortified through association with Norwegian-American institutions, and displayed a real interest in, and perhaps a need for, asserting the equality and strength of the Norwegian stock. [18]

Opponents of the bygdelag saw in them another divisive force similar to the political and religious controversies that were splitting the immigrants. Ultimately the detractors were proved wrong, as lag activity brought the different church bodies and political groups closer together. The Reverend Helge Høverstad, who had associated with the bygdelag from the start, in 1929 expressed his firm conviction that the movement prepared the way for the union of the several Norwegian Lutheran synods. {25} It was actually the only major trend cutting across all dividing lines; controversial issues were deliberately kept out of lag programs. The assertion of regionalism furthermore introduced the immigrants to phases of their heritage that they knew little about. Joint efforts brought the various groups into close contact. A sense of participating in a large and significant undertaking created solidarity with sister societies.

Uniting forces were, of course, pre-eminent features of individual bygdelag. The composition of the settlements facilitated retention of localized facets of the Norwegian background and provided a base of operation, but it was in itself not a cause of the movement. The desire for reunions resulted mainly from the mixing process as it moved westward. It grew out of a longing to meet and renew acquaintances and to revive half-forgotten memories of the old-country past. The lag appear similar to old-settlers’ societies, but aside from outward likenesses they are distinct and different. They early adopted an organizational machinery, had nation-wide appeal, established joint publications, set themselves ambitious objectives, and advocated the maintaining and enriching of the cultural aspects of their national heritage.

One of the significant means of promoting the broader objectives of the bygdelag was through publishing ventures. The most active groups have had ambitious plans. For periods of [19] time some have printed quarterly or monthly magazines; some have issued yearbooks. Still others have sponsored only a few unimportant publications or have had none.

These printed materials have frequently been the responsibility of the few who realized their worth. They have tried to record pioneer and immigrant history, to present a picture of the homeland, and to collect biographies and genealogies of their countrymen. Although the contents are to a marked degree antiquarian in nature, there is obviously much of value in the collections and narratives. At the time they were published, they had a decidedly interest-arousing influence. {26}

More might possibly have been accomplished. Idealistically conceived plans for permanent archives to preserve historical records never matured. There likely has been a lack of editorial talent; men attempted tasks for which they had no training. Besides, all such endeavors were largely a labor of love. They had neither sufficient financial support nor were there, in fact, enough individuals who could make the required sacrifice of time and effort. In the main, the meager results of their work attest to the incidental character of such enterprises. Social considerations have always been foremost in attracting people to the lag, and the main interest of members has been the reunion itself. In years when they were unable to attend, they usually felt no obligation to pay the modest dues most lag collected. Lists of members therefore do not indicate the total of people to whom lag appealed. Instead they likely represent the number who attended in any particular year.

Indifference of the members to many projects introduced by leaders made their responsibility formidable. When D. G. Ristad took stock of the first twenty-five years of Trønderlaget, he chastised his fellow Trønders mildly for their negligence in backing undertakings that their lag had adopted. "Consequently lack of support in the past 25 years of the existence of Trønderlaget has precluded its service to our [20] people as it should be." Such reflections set the degree of lag success in its proper perspective. {27}

When Ristad spoke of "our people," he might have had in mind all Norwegian immigrants, but he may also have been thinking specifically of his kindred Trønder Americans. To understand the manifestations of regionalism on American soil, it is necessary to investigate the conditions under which these people were reared. One incisive point should be made before proceeding to a description of the immigrants’ homeland base. The expressions of local patriotism developed from a position of national unity rather than of sectional disparity. During the years that saw the rise of the bygdelag movement, the immigrants rested securely in a Norwegian-American identity. Their ethnic identification was, however, an outgrowth of local loyalties and attachments. The bygd concept represented a link with the past way of life — the only response to ethnicity that made concrete experiences the basis for personal identity and continuity.

A glance at the physical characteristics of Norway reveals a rugged, mountainous country that gives only limited possibilities for agricultural production; about three fourths of the area is unsuitable for habitation or cultivation. Yet, during the period of great migration, Norway had primarily an agrarian economy, most of her population living in rural regions. The country people lived in small communities scattered along rivers and lakes of the interior or on the narrow and extremely long coast. The rolling meadowland of the southeast formed the only unified population area, but even there settlements tended to be limited in size.

These communities were segregated and isolated, the extent varying in accordance with natural barriers such as forests, mountains, and fjords. Intercourse with the outside world was limited. Groups of people sharing the same fjord or valley would form a cohesive unit, at times coextensive with the [21] official administrative division or even the historically based folk district.

Such assemblages of bygder would have much in common, although there would be local variations. Near isolation developed through centuries regional types, differences in personality, customs, traditions, and, above all, language. Intermarriage established ties of kinship within the community. Living in close proximity to nature in itself left an indelible imprint; every glen and peak and rushing waterfall had its significance. The small farmsteads, cleared and cultivated by the toil of ages, created a sense of belonging to a fixed and predetermined generation cycle. Thus there evolved in every heart a deep attachment to and love of the bygd and its traditions.

Peculiarity of speech was what most clearly set boundaries. Developments in the dialects, virtually unchecked for centuries, had been actively working on the language. The official Dano-Norwegian of church and government affected rural speech only slightly. An outsider, a person from another district or bygd, was immediately betrayed by his dialect. With people who used the same local vernacular, there was an immediate response, a feeling of kinship, and an opportunity to talk a relaxed, natural speech flavored with the rich and expressive idioms of the locality. Personality could unfold freely, as the idiosyncrasies of the common dialect were at once recognized and loved. {28}

With language the most distinctive element, a regional culture emerged. It was nourished by outside influences but molded and basically shaped in local application. Specialties in dance, music, games, painting, wood carving, and folklore developed alongside local customs and traditions in dress, food, and general conduct.

The romantic national renaissance of the nineteenth century elevated peasant culture to a place of honor. It made rural [22] Norway the carrier of an unbroken national tradition — the genuine Norway — as opposed to the urban and more Danish-oriented heritage. The emphasis on the folk heritage and the creation of landsmaal, a literary language based on dialects, grew into a strong social, political, and cultural movement that challenged the established foreign-influenced order. Rural Norway rose in prominence and influence to an extent that few countries could match.

The struggle for national recognition, against stronger Scandinavian neighbors, made Norwegians fiercely patriotic. The sense of being members of a nation was never lost. Local isolation had, however, produced biased and stereotyped judgments about the character of Norwegians from other regions of the country. In time such views were mellowed, and they were to become little more than a subject for humorous reference, but, even so, the basic attitudes also persisted in the New World. An observation suggested to the author by Lars Reinton is that "Norway is a country of many nations which naturally draw together when they get outside the country." {29}

The spirit of bygd identity and rivalry was presented in the New World in 1901 in Rasmus B. Anderson’s "Bygdejævning," a series of articles first printed in his newspaper, Amerika (Madison, Wisconsin), which were later published in book form. Several writers contend that these articles greatly stimulated the bygdelag idea. In them the contributors enumerated the accomplishments made in America by immigrants from the writers’ home localities. Half jocosely a writer would begin, "There is every reason to assume in advance that the Telemarkings have contributed most among Norwegian Americans, since they are of course Telemarkings." The author would then go on to prove his point. Such friendly bantering and self-praise was very much in the bygdelag tradition. {30} [23]

Some of the contributors resorted to dialect. One began, "When I am going to write about the Sognings it is a matter of course that I use their own language" (Naar eg skal skriva om Sogningadn, saa er det sjølsagt, at eg lyt bruka deira cige Maal). {31} The bygdelag reunions marked the heyday of the use of dialect in America. Certain lag even drafted constitutions in the Norwegian vernacular, speakers used it from the rostrum, and the members reveled in it. For some, a generation had passed since the stevne had made it possible to renew home ties — to assemble with kindred bygd folk. The meeting had been a kind of oasis, a visit to the ancestral bygd, for many of them the only kind they would ever know. What had transpired at the stevne — mainly the people whom they had met — was a cherished topic to be dwelt on from one reunion to the next.

In the wake of such considerations, and incidental to them, is the question of how much of the bygd heritage the lag movement as a whole introduced in America. The members at the meetings enjoyed an indulgence and a revelry in Norwegian-ness. Although the organizations differed, the combined activities of the lag certainly generated considerable enthusiasm for peasant arts and crafts in a variety of areas. As in Norway, the movement made the peasant background acceptable: the immigrant chest could be dragged out and given a place of honor. No complete breakthrough of folk culture as the phrase would be understood in Norway resulted. Elements of it were visible, and an awakening of interest in folk activity held promises that influenced many fields of Norwegian-American life.

The Norway cherished by the immigrants was the idealized one of the national romanticists. Publications never tire of stressing the past glories of the bygd, and poems — a number in dialect — abound in the use of the words "dear" and "beautiful," often used redundantly. The annual enactment by [24] Hardangerlaget of the ultraromantic incident suggested by the painting, "The Bridal Procession in Hardanger," epitomizes the Sunday mood of Norway cherished in the societies. {32} Appreciation and enjoyment of the old-world heritage, however, did not move notably beyond nostalgia. The vigorous use of dialect at the reunions and in lag publications gained prestige from the success of landsmaal in Norway, but it never led to a wide acceptance of the new language in America. In the context in which the bygdelag existed and operated, no more could reasonably be expected. What is remarkable is that rural Norway raised its head in America by generating a large and influential movement that contributed worthily to the quality of life of the people it served.

The folk background and the popular and rustic character of some lag programs were not readily accepted by everyone. At the outset some voices criticized the introduction of folk tales, dancing, and fiddle playing, as they detracted from the religious heritage. Still, all the organizations adopted features from the home region and were influenced by prevailing attitudes. Societies such as Stavanger Amt Laget, representing districts influenced by the strong pietistic movement of the nineteenth century, have tended to display a strict religious quality. The valleys of the interior produced lag with a pronounced feeling for folk music and dancing. The Setesdal people adopted the popular stevjing, a contest in the improvisation of short verse in dialogue. Some societies have tolerated a taste for hard liquor; others have observed strict abstinence at their meetings. In some measure, the individualities of the different bygdelag reflected the attitudes and preferences of their leaders and of the original organizing bodies — as well as the characteristics of the home regions. Some fell into the hands of the clergy. This circumstance caused the Reverend R. J. Meland of Nordfjordlaget to suggest changes in 1929. Because excessive piety allegedly kept some people away from meetings, he [25] recommended programs with a broad appeal. These on the whole have tended to be more tolerant and widely representative with the passing of time. {33}

"Bridge building" has been a major concern of the bygdelag, and they can record notable success in linking immigrants with the native land and in creating a flow of impulses back and forth across the Atlantic. Bonds have been strengthened by gifts and visits; on occasion members of certain lag have gone to Norway in bodies. There have been reciprocal exchanges of official and other representatives and visitors. Publications have found avid readers in Norway as well as in America. American public figures have attended celebrations and conventions arranged by the bygdelag; thus the movement has also served to introduce the immigrants and their country of origin to the general public in the New World. Usually the individual societies have established contact with the liberal youth movement (den frilynde ungdomsrørsla) that arose among nationally minded young people in rural Norway. Many organizations have received silk banners from local groups in their home district. These banners were dedicated with solemn ceremony and reverence and were displayed at all reunions.

A final assessment of the major contribution of the lag movement seems to be that it offered a place of retreat and a source of encouragement to Americans-in-the-making. It is an academic question how much further it might have progressed. From its inception around the turn of the century to the present, numerous opinions and recommendations have been advanced. The dividing line has been between those who envisioned a gradual merging of all bygdelag into one single organization stressing national rather than regional origin, and those who wanted to keep the individual lag as completely separate groups. Both views were discussed publicly in Decorah-Posten as recently as 1966. The editor, Erling Innvik, spoke for the broader view, and Peder H. Nelson, one of the influential [26] members of Hallinglaget, vigorously defended the traditional family-style reunion. {34}

The bygdelag as such are probably doomed to disappear, but the appeal of their motivating force may find expression in new forms and live on into the future. It is conceivable that a widespread interest in ethnic origin and identity will cause an increasing number of Norwegian Americans to seek out their ancestral abodes and to study the folkways and history of their immigrant forebears.


<1> Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, 3—16 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1938); Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior, 2: 23—29 (Philadelphia, 1953); Halvdan Koht, "Utvandringen fra Norge," in Nye innhog og utsyn, 187—198 (Oslo, 1964).

<2> Olaf M. Norlie, History of the Norwegian People in America. 313 (Minneapolis, 1925).

<3> Twelfth Census of the United States, Population, 1: clxxiv (1900); Thirteenth Census of the United States, Population, 1:963 (1910).

<4> Sixteenth Census of the United States, Population, 7 (1940).

<5> Qualey, in Norwegian Settlement, traces Norwegian participation in the westward movement of the American frontier.

<6> For an account of the Brooklyn colony, see Knight Hoover, in Norwegian-American Studies, 24: 22 1—234 (Northfield, 1970).

<7> K. G. Nilsen, "Utvandrerens farvel," in Bygdela genes Fællesraad aarbok og julehilsen 1929, 28—31 (Minneapolis, 1929).

<8> Short English-language histories of Norway outlining developments touched upon in this paper are Wilhelm Keilhau, Norway in World History (London, 1943) and John Midgaard, A Brief History of Norway (Oslo, 1963).

<9> Waldemar Ager, "Norskhetsbevægelsen I Amerika," in Nordmands-Forbundet, 18:211—219 (1925) ; Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 576—584 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1940).

<10> The word bygdelag is used in both the singular and the plural. In the homeland the term has also come to designate societies in the cities composed of country people from the same bygd or district. See "Ungdomslag og bygdelag i hovudstaden," in Den l7de Mai (Oslo, 1932).

<11> K. Bergsagel, "Bygdelagsbevægelsen i Canada," in Nordmands-Forbundet, 23:184—185 (June, 1930).

<12> Nordvesten (St. Paul) , June 29, 1899.

<13> The original name was Valdris Samband, as the spelling Valdris was considered to be correct. In 1927 the name was finally changed to comply with the official Norwegian spelling, Valdres. Andrew A. Veblen, The Valdris Book, 11—12 (Minneapolis, 1920) deals with the name.

<14> Torkel Oftelie, Aarbok for Telelaget 1926, 11 (Fergus Falls, Minnesota, 1926).

<15> The original spelling of the name was Telelage. The final t in the definite article et was dropped to indicate actual pronunciation. in America the Telemark dialect was used extensively in both speech and writing, especially by Oftelie who served as Telelaget’s historian from the beginning to 1926.

<16> The complete names of the lag generally indicated their national character as evidenced in Hallinglaget i Amerika, Det Nationale Sognalag af Amerika, and Nordlandslaget i Amerika. The chief rival to the designation bygdelag was the word fylkelag or fylkeslag. A fylke is a district of larger extent than a bygd. The latter term was for some time used interchangeably with the more common bygdelag.

<17> Veblen, The Valdris Book, 55.

<18> There are several short articles dealing with the bygdelag movement, most of them in Norwegian. The major contribution in English, besides Veblen’s Valdris Book, is Jacob Hodnefield, "Norwegian-American Bygdelags and Their Publications," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 18: 163—222 (Northfield, 1954). See also the following: Lars M. Gimmestad, "Bygdelagene i 30 år," in Nordmanns-Forbundet, 25:260—262 (August, 1932); Gustav M. Bruce, "Bygdelagene," in Nordmanns-Forbundet, 32:7—10 (January, 1939); A. A. Veblen, "Fra bygdelagsbevægelsens begyndelse," in Samband, 2:39—44 (June, 1929). Veblen in his Valdris Book discusses in full claims by groups and individuals of having originated the bygdelag idea.

<19> The name Oslolaget is here used anachronistically. The name actually was Kristianialaget until 1925, when it was altered to reflect the change in the name of the capital in that same year.

<20> John Hjellum, "Bygdelagene i 1929." in Skandinaven almanak og kalender. 69—79 (1930); Lars M. Gimmestad, "Bygdelagsbevægelsen," in Skandinaven almanak og kalender, 97—103 (1929).

<21> Normanden (Grand Forks, North Dakota), June 7, 21, 28, July 5, 12, 26, 1911; Skandinaven (Chicago), September 8, 1911.

<22> Nils N. Rønning, Syttende mai festskrift, hundreaars-festen, Saint Paul-Minneapolis 1914 (Minneapolis, 1914); Eilev O. Bakke and T. A. Walby, "l7de mai festen paa Minnesota statsudstillings grund i 1914," in Bygdelagenes Fællesraad aarbok og julehilsen 1929, 107—117 (Minneapolis, 1929).

<23> Skandinaven, "norsk-amerikanernes hundreaars-fest, 1825-1925 ," in a special issue dated June 5, 1925, on the occasion of the Norse-Amercan Centenial; Centenial Committe, Norse-American Centenial, 1825-1925, 58-60

<24> Normanden, July 23, 1926.

<25> Helge Høverstad, "De norsk-amerikanske bygdelags indflydelse paa vort land og paa vort folks kultur," in Skandivaven almanak og kalender, 70—75 (1929).

<26> See the listing of bygdelag publications by Jacob Hodnefield in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 18: 215—219.

<27> Trønderlagets aarbok 1933, 7.

<28> See the following scholarly studies of Norwegian dialects: A. B: Larsen, Oversigt over de norske bygdemål (Kristiania, 1897) and Hallfrid Christiansen. Norske dialekter, parts 1—3, unbound (Oslo, 1946—1948).

<29> Interview with dr. phios. Lars Reinton, prominent Norwegian historian in the field of local history, June 11, 1970.

<30> Rasmus B. Anderson, Bygdejævning: Artikier af reprassentanter fra de forskjellige bygder i Norge om, hvad deres sambygdinger har udrettet i Vesterheimen, 2 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1903). The book contains articles reprinted from Amerika.

<31> Anderson, Bygdejævning, 16.

<32> "Brudeferden I Hardanger," by A. Tidemand and H. Gude, is one of the best-known Norwegian paintings from the national romantic era. Between 1848 and 1853 four copies were made.

<33> Normanden, November 7, 1929.

<34> Decorah-Posten (Iowa), November 18, 1965, December 8, 29, 1966,

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