NAHA Header


Knut Gjerset*
    by David T. Nelson (Volume 25: Page 27)

* This contribution has been adapted from a lecture presented at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, on September 23, 1969, the last in a series sponsored by the Norwegian-American Museum. In preparing it, the late David T. Nelson made use of the official records of the college and museum in Decorah, the papers of Knut Gjerset, Laurence M. Larson, O. E. Rølvaag, the Reverend D. G. Ristad, Birger Osland, Kristian Prestgard, Theodore C. Blegen, Waldemar Ager, and others in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, as well as the minutes of the association.

K. O. B.


KNUT GJERSET was born September 15, 1865, in Romsdal, Norway, the son of Ole S. Gjerset and Karen Marie Eidem. His father had attended the Molde School at Molde, Norway, and upon completion of the course was appointed teacher and precentor for the district of Frena in Romsdal. There he met and married Karen Marie Eidem, a widow and the only child and sole heir of her parents’ patrimony, Eidem. After their marriage, he resigned his position as teacher and devoted himself to husbandry and farming. He proceeded to enlarge his wife’s holdings, to construct drainage ditches, to clear the land of stone, and to bring the farm under cultivation. He erected a two-story house and other buildings and increased the herds on the property. He held various positions of trust in the community and was especially interested in improving public education.

But progress was slow in Romsdal. The soil was poor and [28] the climate unfavorable. Ole began to think about what the future could offer his children and to study opportunities in America. Finally he decided to emigrate. In May, 1871, he and his wife and their five children left for America. With them was Ole Eidem, then nineteen years old, a son of Karen Marie by her earlier marriage. The party left Eidem in wagons, sailed from Bergen to Hull, England, and thence went by train to Liverpool. There they embarked on the "Peruvian" of the Allan Line for Quebec, Canada, a voyage of eleven days. Thence they proceeded by rail to Grand Haven, Michigan, by steamer to Milwaukee, and by train to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Here Ole Gjerset became seriously ill. After some weeks of sickness and convalescence, the family went by steamer to St. Paul and Minneapolis, then by rail to Meeker County, Minnesota, where they found shelter with a Swedish settler, Torbom, in the woods some distance from Litchfield. Soon after, their daughter Amalia was born.

Ole Gjerset proceeded alone by train to Benson and then southward on foot to the Big Bend on the Chippewa River in Chippewa County, where he filed on eighty acres. Rejoining his family in Litchfield, he took his wife and younger children by train to Benson, which then consisted of a railroad station and a few wooden buildings. There he had bought two big-horned steers, which promptly staged a runaway when first hitched to a wagon. Ole Eidem and Gjerset’s oldest son Oluf, then about twelve, were left to drive the steers and the wagon with Gjerset’s possessions to Benson. The whole party, consisting of Ole, his wife, Ole Eidem, and children — Oluf, Gurianna, Søren, Knut, Magnus, and infant Amalia — then set out with their baggage on the twenty-mile journey to Ole’s claim on the Big Bend. They found shelter in Nils K. Hagen’s log cabin and were welcomed by Kari, his wife. Before fall, they had a house of their own, built of lumber hauled from Benson. A prairie fire swept by them but spared the house.

Ole Gjerset had nine children, of whom one had died in infancy in Norway. The three youngest were born in this [29] country: Amalia, Albert, and Carolina (who married Professor T. C. Wollan of Concordia College in 1901). Ole Eidem became a successful merchant in Watson, Minnesota, where he died at the age of fifty-six, never having revisted Norway.

The Gjerset family flourished on the Big Bend farm. But the disasters of the 1870’s hit hard. First came the grasshoppers in 1873; they did not disappear until 1877. Then followed rust and the end of wheat farming; many settlers were ruined. Ole had brought a large chest full of books with him from Norway. With these and with his love of music, he instructed his children during long winter evenings. The home became a school that provided teaching in many useful branches of knowledge. Mrs. Gjerset insisted on instruction in Christian doctrine and the gospels. On one dreary October day, she suddenly picked up one of the children, put him in her lap, caressed him and stroked his hair, saying: "You will be a student and you will be very successful. But you must always keep away from that which is evil. Do not let anything that is wicked and wrong ruin your career." Are we mistaken in believing that the child was Knut?

In the church controversy on predestination, Ole S. Gjerset joined the Anti-Missourians and wrote extensively and well on the subject, Knut was to say later. For years he taught school during the summer months for little or no remuneration. He helped organize the Norwegian Lutheran Synod congregation in the Big Bend settlement in Kandiyohi County. The Reverend Lars Markhus served it first and was followed by the Reverend O. E. Solseth in 1873. Ole S. Gjerset died on January 30, 1902. The Reverend Hjalmar S. Froiland said in his funeral sermon: "A great man has departed from us. . . .

I never called on him to give spiritual advice. I came to him to learn, to profit by his superior wisdom and insight." Knut said years later of his father: "What greatness he possessed was not of wealth, power, or station in life, as he possessed none of these; it was rather of influence due to greatness of mind and strength of character." [30]


In addition to the instruction Knut received at home and the advantages of having a good library to browse in, he attended the public schools and Willmar Seminary, Willmar, Minnesota, from 1884 to 1888. On September 1, 1889, he entered the University of Minnesota, of which at that time Cyrus Northrop was president. Knut pursued the literary course in the college of science, literature, and arts and received the degree of bachelor of literature on June 1, 1893. His older brother Oluf, later a Minnesota state senator, was then studying law. Knut’s daughter, Agnes Gjerset Ingebretson, has observed that her father worked his way through the university. Evidently he was a serious student, for the Gopher, an undergraduate publication, used the following quotation in 1893 to characterize him: "His mind, his kingdom, and his will, his law." It also noted on another page that the Gopher board had seen "Gjerset smile." During his years at the university, there was no indication that he was greatly interested in Norway and its people. When he took up graduate study, first at Johns Hopkins University from 1895 to 1896 and then at Heidelberg University, Germany, from 1896 to 1898, he was still working in English literature, as indicated by his doctoral thesis, "Der Einfluss von James Thomsons Jahreszeiten auf die deutsche Literatur des achtzenten Jahrhunderts." Most likely the abiding interest in his people came from his father, whom he greatly respected.

Following his graduation from the University of Minnesota, Gjerset was principal of St. Ansgar Academy, St. Ansgar, Iowa, from 1893 to 1895. Then followed the three years of graduate work at Johns Hopkins and Heidelberg. On his return to this country, he was principal of Glenwood Academy at Glenwood, Minnesota, from 1898 to 1902. Then C. K. Preus, newly elected president of Luther College, induced him to come to Decorah as professor of Norwegian and history. Preus granted him a leave of absence to study at the University of Oslo in 1909-1910, and at the University of Berlin in 1910. [31] By this time he had embarked on his pioneering undertaking, the History of the Norwegian People. After his return to Luther College he completed the monumental two-volume work; it was published by Macmillan in 1915 and twice reprinted. For one year, 1916—1917, he was president of Park Region Luther College, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, but thereafter he was on the staff of Luther College until his death in 1936.

Throughout his long tenure at Luther, Gjerset was an outstanding teacher. He had the respect of students and faculty members and was regularly consulted on affairs affecting the college. His wife was Helen Baumgarten. Mrs. Gjerset loved to dispense hospitality and their home was frequently open to students and teachers.

Gjerset’s laborious research and the even more strenuous task of writing his History of the Norwegian People made heavy demands on his strong physique and ultimately undermined his health. Much of the work on the history was done in addition to a heavy teaching load. Only his will carried him through. When published, the study attracted immediate attention and marked Gjerset as an outstanding scholar. He also wrote "A Norwegian-American Landnamsman: Ole S. Gjerset," which appeared in volume 3 of Norwegian-American Studies and Records (1928), and "The Norwegian-American Historical Museum" for volume 6 (1931) of the same series.


In 1921, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, who by that time was firmly established at St. Olaf College, offered Gjerset an appointment as head of the department of Norwegian at his college. He made a strong personal plea to Gjerset to accept the post, indicating that he had President Lars W. Boe’s support in extending the invitation. Despite the friendly relations between these two strong men — relations which appear never to have been broken — Gjerset refused the offer. Perhaps he was exhausted after the physical effort expended on his history; [32] perhaps he felt a responsibility to President Preus and Luther College; perhaps he felt himself completely at home in the cultural milieu that he found in Decorah centered around several graduates of the University of Oslo and the established members of the faculty. In any case, he declined the flattering offer from St. Olaf College.

Gjerset in 1924 published a one-volume History of Iceland, a pioneer work on that country. He also collaborated with Dr. Ludvig Hektoen on an article entitled "Health Conditions and the Practice of Medicine among the Early Norwegian Settlers, 1825-1865," which appeared in volume 1 of Norwegian-American Studies and Records (1926) . Much earlier, in 1908, he had completed an English Grammar. In 1911 he published Brændevinssamla gene og avholdsarbeidet i Norge. He was assistant editor of Symra from 1911 to 1914. In 1916 he was made a Knight, first class, of the Order of St. Olav by the Norwegian government, and in 1927 he was honored by membership in the Icelandic Order of the Falcon. Earlier he had been awarded an honorary doctoral degree by St. Olaf College. He was a member of the congregation in Chippewa County, Minnesota, from 1871 to 1898, the one his father had helped to found; of the Norwegian Synod congregation at Glenwood, Minnesota, from 1898 to 1902; and thereafter, until his death, of First Lutheran congregation, Decorah.

As noted above, Gjerset apparently showed little interest in Norway and its people while at the University of Minnesota. It is known that he received his best grades in English and English literature. When he took up graduate study at Heidelberg, he was still busy with English literature, as his doctoral thesis shows. In his senior year at Minnesota, he took a full-year course in the Scandinavian department, possibly from Olaus J. Breda, who was professor of Scandinavian languages and literature at Minnesota from 1884 to 1899. But there is nothing in the records to suggest that Breda had a part in shaping Gjerset’s interests.

On the other hand, Gjerset’s work at St. Ansgar Seminary [33] from 1893 to 1893 involved him in the activities of a strong Norwegian settlement founded by the liberal Claus Lauritz Clausen, who had broken with Synod leaders over the slavery question. Later, at Glenwood Academy, he was again in a pronounced Norwegian environment. C. K. Preus at Luther was strongly devoted to Norway and its language. He was also a staunch Synod man. With his father, Herman Amberg Preus (for more than thirty years president of the Norwegian Synod) , he had had a part in the predestination controversy; over this issue he and his father had been deposed in 1888 as pastors of the Norway Grove congregation in the southern part of Wisconsin.

As mentioned earlier, Knut’s father was one of the founders of the Norway Lake Lutheran congregation. Knut therefore knew firsthand the bitter doctrinal disputes which split this congregation wide open and disturbed the community for years. Nothing indicates that Knut himself took part in any of these controversies; more likely, they repelled him, for he found nothing constructive in them. More than once he stated that he was not a party man — in other words, he did not take sides in arguments that he felt pulled down rather than built up a cause or community.

In Glenwood he had found a community at peace religiously. The predestination debate in the church had not divided it. There also he found some champions of Norwegian culture.

It is quite possible that Gjerset and Preus were on common ground in their aversion to disputes and controversies that had led to so much recrimination and sorrow in the church. He may not have been a dyed-in-the-wool Synod man, but he came to Decorah at Preus’s urging. There he found himself in a thoroughly congenial atmosphere. He associated with a strong nucleus of cultured and well-educated men in the community in addition to the faculty at Luther College. Among them were the editors of Decorah-Posten, the most widely circulated Norwegian newspaper in the country. These men and some of the teachers at Luther had taken the lead in launching [34] Symra, "a magazine for Norsemen on both sides of the ocean." This was a pioneering venture that antedated the program of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. It had no adequate financial backing and relied on the good will and hard work of its editors and contributors. It is still a treasure-house for those who love the past. Its articles, though uneven in quality, remain priceless today.


The predestination controversy had rocked the Norwegian Synod and had convulsed nearly all the communities in the 1880’s. Many both in and out of the Synod (which had lost a third of its membership) were aghast at the havoc wrought and began to seek ways to repair the damage. Especially the laity sought to escape from the bitterness of the theological conflict. So a period of consultations and free conferences followed in which a way was sought to bring the warring elements together. Eventually formulas were found which brought about the church union of 1917, in which the Synod, the United Norwegian Lutheran Church, and the Haugeans formed one church body. The majority of Norwegian Americans were thus brought together again. Some recalled that it would soon be a hundred years since the sloop "Restauration" had brought the first Norwegians to this country to begin a flood of modern immigration. There were stirrings here and there throughout the country. Before long a movement was started to have a great centennial celebration in Minneapolis in 1925. Two years earlier Gjerset had taken charge of disorganized museum materials at Luther College. He quickly made a collection of them in the old "chicken coop" on the Luther campus. It received excellent publicity and attracted much attention.

When the decision was made to have a display of Norwegian-American artifacts at the Norse-American Centennial in Minneapolis, Gjerset was made chief director of the project. With his usual energy he soon created a noteworthy exhibit. [35] His work in this position brought him into contact with all facets of Norwegian-American life. He was tireless in enlisting the support of those who had interesting articles from the pioneer period and of those whose work deserved to be more widely known.

He was not only a central figure in promoting the Centennial, which President Calvin Coolidge attended to pay a glowing tribute to the Norwegian Americans; he was also a focal point for many of the ideas that were generated by this united effort of Norwegians in this country. A number of prominent men from the homeland had also come to this country for the event. The Norwegian-American press was filled with material concerning Norwegian history, the pioneers, accounts of early immigration, and ideas as to how to preserve the sense of solidarity between Norway and the New World. All who had a love for the land of their origin — all who revered the past and the pioneers — were stimulated by the celebration.

It is therefore not surprising that a movement was started to found a society for the preservation of records that ought not be lost. As early as 1923, Gjerset had written Professor Laurence M. Larson of the University of Illinois regarding the possibility of such an association. In his reply on May 21, 1923, Larson endorsed the idea, saying, "It ought to be possible to interest a sufficient number of men to organize an historical society."

Professor O. E. Rølvaag of St. Olaf College was greatly interested and asked permission to place Gjerset’s name on a circular for a proposed Norwegian-American Historical Society. Apparently the proposal came at the wrong time or grew out of efforts with which Gjerset was not in sympathy, for he answered on September 5, 1924, as follows: "You ask what I know about the Historical Society? Excuse me for using du, but I find more comfort in this form. Well, I know exactly as much as you seem to know. I have seen a couple of articles in the papers by spokesmen for the cause; and then I have received the circular. What they have thought to set as the goal, [36] who shall be members, how one shall attempt to accomplish anything — of that I have heard nothing. At any rate I know so little about the matter that I have not yet become enthusiastic for the idea. But since I am so far from the center of things, it can hardly be expected that I should be better informed. There are, however, certain things I must become clear over before enthusiasm will burst into flame in me. Will the society try to establish such conditions among us that work of a literary sort can be carried on? Or will it be a kind of royal seat from which commands will issue to workers loaded down with fatigue and poverty to do even more work during the night hours? This and much more I would like to have clarified before I sign the circular. Not before. It will make no difference whether I sign or not. Here I am, tired and lonesome, not in the least in the mood to become enthusiastic.

"Thank you again for what you say about the museum. It is a sheer joy to hear anything so forthrightly sensible. I must ask permission to say that I have never been an egoist, nor am I a party man in matters of faith, doctrine, or life. What little I have sought to do I have done because of my interest in our culture and of love for our people — not because I live in Decorah. For me personally it would hardly matter where the museum might happen to be, just so it becomes a museum. But even this cause has certain practical aspects and it is not a matter of indifference to the Norwegian people. There can be a lot of [talk?] about this, too, as if all that had to be done was to resolve where the museum was to be — and lo, it would stand there. But it is with this as with other undertakings in the cultural area. It will require work, money, time, patience! Diligence year after year! And at last when after great effort the matter has progressed to the point where it begins to look like something of a success, then there is a chorus of voices that it cannot be placed here. We are to begin over again at a new place. This system, which has pursued us in all our undertakings, has at any rate this advantage that nothing of consequence can be accomplished in any place. [37]

"But there are other practical considerations to take into account. Suppose that it should occur to people in Norway to send an old stabur or an old Norwegian stua with furnishings to America. Then there would naturally be strong voices urging that that ‘museum’ should be established in Minneapolis, ‘the great Norwegian center in America.’ . . . I know Minneapolis pretty well, but so far I have never discovered that any real Norwegian culture flourished there. That it is a center we know. That is to say, the city is a railroad center and a center of trade, but not a Norwegian center, and it never will be one.

"And there is one thing more. Consider the artifacts which must be found in a museum if it is to be a Norwegian museum. There will be old chests, artifacts of iron made in the father’s own smithy, materials which the mother has woven, etc. All these are of such great interest when one understands the differences to be found in them. But take these artifacts to a great American city. Let the American public stare at them, turn up their noses and toss their heads at it all. What kind of cultural interest has one thus promoted? We have only done our people and our forefathers an injustice.

"But here in Decorah no one will see it, writes Waldemar Ager. Now since school closed in June, there have been about 2,000 visitors at the museum here and they have come from eleven states and Canada. One day there were not less than 160. I wonder if there would have been many more if the museum were someplace in Minneapolis, for example.

"About the archives I will not say anything. I talk too much. You know there has been discussion in the papers about these matters. If you have not had an opportunity to see the articles, I will send you Decorah-Posten so you can see what is to be found about the matter.

"Now let me wish you welcome home from your Norway tour. Naturally, you have had joy and pleasure out of it. Hearty thanks for writing to me."

Later Gjerset must have had second thoughts about the matter, for he was one of the group that met at "Troldhaugen," [38] the home of Kristian Prestgard, editor of Decorah-Posten, in Decorah on July 24, 1925. Their purpose was to discuss "first and foremost the question of forming an organization around the Luther College museum and archives for the preservation and furtherance of Norwegian-American culture. Nine men were present, joined later by others. Knut Gjerset was elected chairman and Kristian Prestgard, secretary.

Gjerset, in an introductory statement, said that the museum had grown beyond the boundaries of one school or one local institution and was assuming the character of a Norwegian-American national museum. This development could be furthered by the contemplated organization. All efforts should be concentrated on creating one large depository rather than dividing forces to establish one small museum here and another there. Moreover, what had already been assembled in Decorah could not now be duplicated elsewhere even if unlimited funds were available. He felt that the artifacts, books, and documents present in Decorah constituted the largest and richest collection for portraying Norwegian-American culture.

He then developed a thought that he later repeated: In the Northwest there were three important Norwegian cultural centers — one in Decorah, one in Northfield at St. Olaf College, and one in the Twin Cities composed of Luther Seminary, Minneapolis Tidende, and the Norwegian department of the University of Minnesota. They were all sprung from the same tree. Work should begin to establish co-operation among the three branches. The contemplated society could support similar undertakings in other places. Practically all of our cultural life outside the church would thus be included. Such an organization could also function as the historical association about which there had been so much talk; it could also provide for the publication of basic studies, etc. At this time Gjerset thought of St. Olaf College’s role as that of assembling a rich library of belles lettres and music; in the Twin Cities there might be a gallery of Norwegian art. It may be noted that [39] Gjerset’s thinking at this moment apparently neglected Wisconsin, especially Madison, and the Chicago area.

Prestgard supported Gjerset’s proposals and called attention to contemplated gifts of museum articles from Norway. Gjerset explained that it was hoped all charter members of the new society would contribute $10. He also said that there should be a later meeting for its organization, the adoption of a constitution, and a more precise formulation of objectives. The meeting elected Gjerset, Prestgard, and Dr. T. Stabo a committee to work on the project.

The proposals of the group that met at Prestgard’s house involved the merging of a historical society and a museum. In this way the two projects would have united support in the association to be formed. With the advice and assistance of the group, Gjerset relates, he spent a part of the summer traveling about, acquainting leading men with the program, and securing their opinions concerning the project. Once the proposals were known, there was of course discussion of the over-all plan.

Rølvaag was not at the meeting in Decorah because he had not yet returned from Norway, where he had been busy with I de dage, the first part of Giants in the Earth. On August 10, 1925, Gjerset wrote to Rølvaag (presumably at Northfield) enclosing a circular containing the ideas of the committee relative to a historical society. Nothing had yet been made public, he said, and the Decorah sponsors felt that the matter should remain private for the time being. The circular had been printed in only a few copies and had not yet been sent out. No more could be done until they knew what St. Olaf College wished to do. He urged Rølvaag to come to Minneapolis without delay to discuss the matter thoroughly with others. This gathering, called the constitutional meeting of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, was held not in Minneapolis but at the Ryan Hotel in St. Paul on February 3, 1926.

Gjerset felt that criticism was often unjustly leveled at him because of his emphasis on the role of Decorah. To Rølvaag [40] he made a brief defense: "If anything of permanence is to be created, it must be anchored firmly to the historical ‘mooring’ points among our own people. Such a point is Decorah. Now it is undoubtedly true that because I personally am attached to Luther College, I am often suspected of carrying on propaganda for Luther College when to the best of my ability I try to work for the Norwegian Museum there. That is indeed very reasonable, but there’s no help for that. Sometime it will perhaps be clear that in this matter I was right just the same. I admire you because you have so clear a vision and because you are raised so high over all personal advantage and suspicion."

School Principal Islandsmoen, who had traveled to America at the request of Dr. Anders Sandvig, director of the Maihaugen Museum at Lillehammer, Norway, to advise where to place a gift of museum articles, had reported on October 13, 1925. It had not yet been decided where the "Norwegian Museum" should be located, he said. Some wanted it in Minneapolis, some favored Seattle, and some wanted it to be an ambulatory museum. No doubt all his findings had been communicated to Gjerset before he returned to Norway. It is no wonder that Gjerset was stirred up about the matter. He knew only too well from his study of Norwegian history the difficulty of getting Norsemen to unite, no matter how noble the objective. But Rølvaag’s support and understanding gave him renewed courage. Later he found other tried and true collaborators in the Reverend D. G. Ristad and Birger Osland, both of whom played major roles in promoting the Norwegian-American Historical Association. It is interesting to note that Rølvaag and Ristad, like Gjerset, carried on despite serious health problems. A heart attack carried off Rølvaag in 1931. Ristad died in 1935. As one reads the correspondence of these men, one admires and wonders at the resolution with which they persevered in their work despite all obstacles.

On October 6, 1925, an interested group had met in Northfield upon invitation of St. Olaf College; there steps were taken to organize the Norwegian-American Historical Association [41] and to provide it with a program, essentially the same as that presented at the preliminary meeting in Decorah the preceding July. It was being promoted under the title "Society for the Preservation of Historical Relics and Records of Norwegian-American Pioneers and Cultural Life." As these ideas crystallized, the name "Norwegian-American Historical Association" was adopted and included in its articles of incorporation. The general purpose was stated to be "to seek and gather information about the people in the United States of Norwegian birth and descent, and preserve the same in appropriate forms as historical records."


After the Norwegian-American Historical Association had been established, Gjerset stated, "word was received from Norway that upon the initiative of Dr. Anders Sandvig . . . a large committee had been appointed, with Dr. A. W. Brøgger of the University of Oslo as chairman, for the purpose of creating a museum gift collection for Norwegians in America." The group inquired where it should be deposited, and the historical association asked that the articles be placed in the museum maintained at Luther College. In order to facilitate the arrangement of the matter, the committee in Norway asked whether the Luther College Corporation would act as custodian of the gift and make the museum there the Norwegian-American Historical Museum that the association had decided to help to develop and maintain. The board of trustees "agreed to comply with the wishes of the association in these matters."

On October 15, 1925, the Luther College board of trustees passed the following resolution: "Moved and carried that the Board sanctions the name, The Norwegian-American Historical Museum, for the Luther College Museum." The executive board of the Norwegian-American Historical Association on May 26, 1926, passed the following resolution: "The Norwegian-American Historical Association gratefully accepts the [42] gift of the museum articles which is now being collected in Norway, the gift to be deposited in the Norwegian-American Historical Museum at Decorah, Iowa, this institution agreeing to act as custodian in perpetuity of this gift on behalf of the Norwegian-American people."

In response to the association’s resolution and to a request by its secretary, it was resolved by the Luther board of trustees, acting on behalf of the corporation, that the board agreed to act as custodian in perpetuity of this gift. Thus, Gjerset wrote in 1931, "The Norwegian-American Historical Museum was finally organized."

Approximately five truckloads of artifacts, weighing 8,800 pounds, were received from Norway. The gifts came from the museums at Bergen, Stavanger, Opland, Hadeland, Christiansund, Sandvig, Valdres, Aalesund, Hallingdal, and Glomdal. There were also articles from individual donors. The house known as Sunnyside on High Street in Decorah was taken over and remodeled as a museum, but it was still extremely short of space.

Moreover, as Gjerset maintained, even this magnificent gift was of somewhat subsidiary importance, as the chief aim of the Museum was to gather together articles illustrating the life of pioneer Norwegian settlers in America. Energetic efforts were made to assemble such materials, and the collections grew rapidly. Attention may be called to the Erik Egge cabin built in Winneshiek County, Iowa, in 1851—1852, the tiny dwelling put up by Hans Haugen in the same county in 1853, a Norwegian parochial log schoolhouse erected between Decorah and Ossian in 1880, and a little log building used for drying grain and malt before grinding, built in Goodhue County, Minnesota, by Knut Thompson Tasa, who settled there in 1855. The Museum also received an old mill with millstones brought from Yang in Valdres, Norway, by Knut Gudmundson Norsving, who settled near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1849, and the fairly extensive Slooper collection, which preserved articles used by [43] the group who crossed the Atlantic in the "Restauration" in 1825.

Gjerset, despite spells of illness which seriously weakened him, worked tirelessly in arranging the collections in the Museum. He had a wonderful faculty for enlisting help from the Norwegians of his own or of other communities. Thus he was able to produce surprising results at relatively small expense.

In 1928 he issued an appeal for funds for a new museum building, having first induced a group of twenty-eight prominent Norwegians to join in the appeal. He also persuaded the Luther authorities to employ the Reverend S. J. N. Ylvisaker to promote the Museum. But he was soon disillusioned, for pressure came from church sources to have Ylvisaker work for other causes. In a letter to Pastor Ristad on August 28, 1929, Gjerset discussed the situation. Ylvisaker was then supporting Park Region Luther College, and the museum campaign was at a standstill. Gjerset continued: "After pondering the matter very seriously, I came to the conclusion that I could not be responsible for the promotion of the museum project any longer on that basis. A meeting of the Museum Committee was called and I told them that I considered the arrangement useless, that if we continued on that basis we would fail, and that I would be forced to sever my connections with the museum, considering the responsibilities we have both over against our own people and also to the people in Norway who have given us so large a museum gift which we cannot now exhibit or take care of."

He then proposed that the Luther College board of trustees appoint a permanent committee of seven and empower it to raise money for a museum building and an endowment, and to assume general management of the work and development of the Museum. The members of the committee should not be connected directly with Luther College except that the director ex officio should be a member of the group. These men would have full power to manage the affairs of the Museum, which would then stand as nearly as possible independent of [44] both the college and the church. The committee would not act in the name of Luther College, but broadly for the Norwegian people in America.

Discussions and negotiations continued. The financial needs of the college were so great that its administration was unwilling to let President S. J. N. Ylvisaker devote time to the Museum. In appraising the difficulties of this period, one should bear in mind the peculiar legal and constitutional questions that left so little freedom of action to the college authorities. These problems were not to be resolved for several years, and for a time they presented roadblocks at every turn.

The next move by Gjerset was to propose a separate and independent corporation to manage the Museum, and with this purpose in mind he consulted officials at the college and in Minneapolis. The upshot was a proposal to place the Museum under the Luther Corporation, which would then appoint a committee to conduct an appeal for funds. The corporation had been formed when the college purchased the Jewell farm of 360 acres adjoining the Luther campus. The board managing the farm was to appoint the committee to direct the affairs of the Museum, which previously was to have been named by the Luther College Corporation. The Reverend H. G. Magelssen of La Crosse was engaged to solicit funds. Under date of December 21, 1929, Gjerset wrote to Ristad that subscriptions totaling $30,000 had been obtained. Gjerset was hopeful that at last the Museum had obtained an independent position and could go forward. He and Ristad were agreed that it should be separate from both the college and the church. Then came an unexpected blow. Judge Andreas Ueland was asked to pass upon the arrangements. In a letter to Ristad dated December 15, 1931, Gjerset explained that Ueland’s opinion held that neither the Luther Corporation nor the college had the right to operate a museum, and that to obtain that right Luther’s charter would have to be changed. So it was decided that Ylvisaker and Magelssen should undertake the raising of funds, Ylvisaker for the college and Magelssen for [45] the Museum. They traveled together and — for the Museum — the results were zero.

Deeply distressed by the turn of events, Gjerset wrote to Ristad: "So far as the Museum is concerned, I am now apparently all through after ten years of toilsome effort. Here there is no way out. No museum can be built here. We have brought together large and interesting collections, but most of it lies thrown about in a pile, a heap of junk — nothing more. I have managed to get the museum recognized by the Smithsonian Institution and listed among American Museums in a large work published by the American Association of Museums. But what good is that?" He felt defeated, his health was failing, his great enterprise was at a standstill. One cannot escape the sense of despondency and despair that runs through his letters in this period.

Gjerset tried to get the Lutheran Publishing House building in Decorah for the Museum, but in this effort, too, he felt that he had met with no success. "So that possibility was also closed. I have no other plans. I am tired of the whole business and am not likely to do anything more for the museum. .

And then there is also the problem of the museum gift from Norway. On three different occasions men from Norway have come to see what disposition we have made of the gift, and there has been no other way than to leave a large part of the material still in the cases in which it was shipped. That hardly redounds to our credit as Norwegian-Americans, but no one seems to worry about that. I shouldn’t trouble you with such matters, but it is a relief to say this to one who understands and cares." Thus Gjerset wrote to Ristad just before Christmas, 1931.

After New Year’s, 1932, the boards deliberating on Gjerset’s request for the Lutheran Publishing House building took favorable action, first leasing it and later transferring title to the college. This building, with its 16,000 square feet of floor space, now became available for the Museum. Although Gjerset had been seriously ill in bed for several weeks, he went to [46] work on the new project and in February, 1933, wrote to Ristad expressing the hope that the Museum might open to the public in June. "I have pushed the thing hard," he said, "because I am suffering from serious heart trouble and may not last very long. I think the wise thing is to finish it now while we are at it." He was disappointed that Ristad was unable to be present at the opening. After that event, he had another long siege of illness. On August 10 he wrote to his friend: "I had wished and hoped that you could be present for the dedication. I wanted you with your vital interest in the cause and the support you have given us to see it. It is a chapter in our work for our Norwegian cultural heritage in this country, and no one understand that work better than you. Even if things go slowly and are on a small scale, still I think that the little we can do to preserve our saga and cultural heritage creates a certain joy and happiness in our life."


At this point it becomes necessary to go back a few years. Gjerset had agreed to write the history of Norwegian sailors on the Great Lakes, and in 1925 and 1926 he was busy with this project. He found the work difficult and tiring. In Milwaukee he went to the customs office, where he found "a whole mountain of big books and I get tired when I look at it, but here I am, and I shall have to do what I can." An episode on the lighter side involved his nightshirt. "By the way," he wrote to Ristad, "I miss my nightshirt. If it should be that I have left it at your house, you would do me a great favor by sending it to me at Chicago." On November 26, 1926, he added that he had now worked for four weeks in Chicago, and "let me tell you it is hard work. Thanks for your kindness in sending me the nightshirt. I have had my mind so full of sailors and sea captains that I forget all sorts of things. I will feel it as a distinct relief when I can lay this job aside and be through." On December 10, 1926, he continued: "Ugh, this is a dirty job! How many times I have regretted that I have had anything [47] to do with it. But since I have got into this jungle, I shall have to push on as far as possible." On December 28, 1927, he exulted: "I am glad the task is finished.. . . For a year and a half I have spent more than half of my time at it. . . . I get tired quicker now than before and I grow more melancholy. I feel that I have rendered enough of this kind of service."

Meanwhile, Gjerset had carried on his work at the college and at the Museum; he also corresponded on the many matters that were referred to him. He encouraged others to stay at their posts in the Norwegian-American Historical Association, pointing out what a critical period these early years of its existence were. Rølvaag, the secretary, was too sick to do very much. Birger Osland talked of resigning as treasurer, Ristad of resigning as president. No, Gjerset wrote to Ristad. "Every man must be at his post, for the present at least, otherwise the vessel is likely to run aground." They would have to stand together and "build our association as strong as possible. We have an excellent crew and the vessel is under full sail. But we must hold together and personal considerations must be set to one side. I will serve wherever I can be of service. . . . Everything is going well. As soon as we get our organization completed, we shall be in open water even if we encounter bad weather and storm. And we will hoist our sails to the top!" Such confidence and optimism was a tonic to all in the struggle to get the society going.

Gjerset had agreed rather reluctantly to write the story of Norwegian sailors on the Atlantic seaboard. Osland was busy raising the money for the project. Apparently at a meeting in Chicago in 1928, there was a change of plans. Gjerset wrote to President Ristad: "I am not too pleased with the turn of things touching our plans with regard to the sailors on the Atlantic coast. Personally I feel quite relieved to know that I need not go into this new battle, but it comes as a distinct set-back in our plans and work now after it has been so well advertised. We can go on and do work in a small way — but always in a small way. It is the large lifts that should convince both the [48] world and ourselves that we are able to do things in a bigger way. When we fail in such an attempt, it simply confirms our secret misgivings and proves what we instinctively feel that we are magtesløse (powerless)." But whatever the Chicago decision had been, it was changed later, and Gjerset went ahead with his research and writing. In this instance, as earlier with the Great Lakes study, Osland raised the funds.

From the moment that Rølvaag took over the post of secretary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Gjerset was in frequent correspondence with him concerning matters affecting the association — its membership, officers, plans, publications, and financial affairs. Both men had their ups and downs in health. On June 12, 1926, Gjerset wrote to Rølvaag, "It hurts to hear that such a solid fellow as you are sick and poorly. But the wicked are plagued by many troubles and in one respect you have been very wicked — you have worked so ungodly hard that you have taxed both body and soul, and as a rule the body suffers most. Now you must furl sail, or everything may go wrong with the vessel. Please do that. You should realize that after all you are only human. Take a rest this summer. You need that if you are not to be consumed like a tallow candle."

On August 15, 1926, he again addressed his friend at St. Olaf: "I am extremely sorry to hear from Prof. J. J. Thompson that you are lying sick in Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis. Down here we had heard that you were at your summer cabin near the lakes in northern Minnesota, and we believed that you were there writing and working early and late as usual. This news was therefore so unexpected and is so extremely sad, especially when it became apparent that you have been poorly ever since this spring. We hope that very soon you may be fully recovered; but, as I said, it is distressing to learn that you are ill.. . . I myself am tired; now, knowing that you are ill, I am dejected and feel little inclined to take up my work."

Subsequent letters expressed similar thoughts and feelings. On November 23: "How are you? I hope that you are better [49] day by day. I know that you are a man of strong will, and the will will win. I myself have been sick, extremely so for long periods, and I know what the will can accomplish. It can move mountains — that is to say, it can accomplish what seems so unspeakably difficult."

On November 4 the next year: "Prestgard says that you are afflicted by heart trouble. That is unpleasant enough. You will not be able to spread full sail as before, but it is not too dangerous, we hope. I have now lived with a heart condition for sixteen years, but have done considerable work in that time and find that I am stronger now than when I was first stricken. But it is necessary to be careful — and patient." The illness and finally the death of Rølvaag was perhaps the hardest blow Gjerset experienced. He felt a very real kinship of spirit with this friend. When Rølvaag was made a Knight of St. Olav in 1926, he rejoiced: "You are what you have always been, a knight without fear or reproach, and you will conduct yourself as a true knight as long as you live."

Another kindred spirit with whom Gjerset corresponded frequently and with the utmost candor was the Reverend D. G. Ristad, pastor of First Lutheran Church, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and the first president of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. Ristad was not only a devoted pastor, but also a writer of considerable talent. Gjerset rated him among the very top Norwegian-American poets. He, like Gjerset and Rølvaag, had health problems. In addition, he had the heavy burden of caring for a wife who was severely afflicted with arthritis.

The other member of the quartet that shaped the association in its early years was Kristian Prestgard, editor of Decorah-Posten. These men, with Theodore C. Blegen and Birger Osland, formed a powerful group that was in close touch with all that affected the society. Gjerset was nearly always consulted when anything was afoot. He was perhaps the most fertile of the group in ideas, and was undoubtedly the hardest driver of them all. But Rølvaag and Ristad were both intense [50] men. I recall Rølvaag very well at the time when he lectured at the University of Chicago, shortly after Giants in the Earth had appeared. He was, as Gjerset had said, "a solid sort of fellow"; in his tuxedo he was impressive. His color was very high; undoubtedly his heart trouble was responsible. But he had work to do, and he went into his lecture with no sails furled. The fisherman from the Lofotens and the farmer from South Dakota were both apparent as he spoke. He was received most warmly. No wonder Gjerset, Ristad, and Prestgard were so strongly attracted to him.

Gjerset’s sense of humor broke through at times in spite of his great earnestness and seriousness of purpose. When he was working on Norwegian Sailors in American Waters, he wrote to Osland: "It is quite a job. If I get through with it, I will solemnly promise not to write another one. I know what a task it is. When someone asked one of our great American writers how it felt to be an author, he answered: ‘It is about the same pleasant feeling as to give birth to a grand piano.’ Yes, it is a pleasant feeling."

Blegen had been lukewarm about Gjerset’s writing the history of Norwegian sailors on the Great Lakes. But Osland had endorsed the project enthusiastically and had immediately raised the funds for the research. Much the same situation obtained with respect to the sailors on the Atlantic seaboard. Gjerset sent a letter to Ristad on March 30, 1931: "I think it is of importance to the Norwegian-American Historical Association because it covers a field that has not been reached to any great extent by our writers before. We could hardly claim to have written the history of our people in this country so long as we write only about the farmers of the Middle West. I think this book will tend to widen our field and will help to secure more active cooperation from our people in the East and South. Together with the book on the Lake Sailors, it gives an account of our people as seamen — one of their leading occupations everywhere and always. Hitherto the main effort of our writers has been to tell about immigration, settlements, [51] and pioneers. We must turn our attention now to what our people have done in America and what they have contributed to American life."

This willingness to enter new fields was characteristic of Gjerset. When a yearbook was planned by the students at Luther College, he suggested that it be named The Pioneer. He thought the immigrant was never afraid to engage in new ventures. To Osland he declared on July 28, 1927: "It has always been my opinion concerning Norwegian engineers and architects that if our association is to be more than a mere name — an empty pod, we must have the courage and enterprise to explore new fields, and here is such a field, one of the most inviting, in which our men have done outstanding work, and about which practically nothing has been written."

He thought Prestgard’s plan to gather America letters and other archival material in Norway was excellent and endorsed it heartily. And he wanted the "Executive Board to formulate some kind of working program, taking into consideration what we should do in the near future, and how we should proceed to get it done."

A project that he did not live to see completed was a Norwegian-American encyclopedia. He had proposed it as early as 1923 and in a letter to Ristad suggested: "If things should be done according to logic, I should not have undertaken it. I have promised every time that I had a new task on my hands that this will be the last — and this — and then this — till now. That this would be the last I knew very well when I started. I have never expected to live to see it finished. But now I have nothing to lose in the venture except my life, and that is worth nothing from now on. I have had a very strong feeling of the necessity of the work we have undertaken if we want our descendants and our American neighbors to know what we have done in this land. And the more I work, the stronger that conviction grows. We cannot wait a century or even half a century, to get the information we should have. It is dying, dying with those who are already old. .. . It was my purpose, [52] then, to see what could be done in spite of this situation. I have thought that possibly I might carry it so far that when I can’t do any more, what has been done might tempt someone to complete it."

To cover the large range of subjects required for an encyclopedia, he had prepared a list of more than 1,200 potential contributors with assignments for each.

Ten years later he was still at it. He had a strong sense of the practical aspects of any research project. To Ristad on May 29, 1934, he indicated that he planned to spend some time soliciting funds here and there for the encyclopedia: "That is part of the undertaking, where our people should lend a helping hand. They should not only sit on the sidelines and watch others do that. Then all talk of love of old Norway and our cultural heritage becomes a farce. . . . And we have a number of young people’s organizations. Their leaders have been so concerned about getting them interested in the church that nothing but religious and devotional matters appear on their programs, which in my opinion is a mistake. The program is too one-sided and narrow. Why should they not learn something of their own people and their own church? Our young people should become partakers in our cultural work. We are doing our people no real favor by simply doing the work for them. They should learn to share in that work. . . . But then that happened which I had not expected to happen. Last year I was stricken with such a severe illness that I could do nothing all summer. Toward fall I began to regain my strength. But in February I had a severe attack of pneumonia. When I got over the attack I was wrecked in health and my old heart trouble was so aggravated that I have been of little account since. . . I am like an old skipper caught in a storm, sailing now with only a remaining rag of a sail. . . . Like the old skipper, I do not know what else to do."

On January 27, 1935, he brought Ristad up to date: "I have been doing a good deal of work, though I am not teaching now. [53] Of course I do not expect to get really well again. I must lie down much of the time, as I can’t be on my feet." Ristad died in 1935, Gjerset on October 30, 1936. So the old Viking was gone. His determination remained strong until the last. His legacy to us is found in his writings, in the Museum so close to his heart, and in his indomitable spirit.

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page