Digitizing the Norse-American Centennial Papers

The Norwegian-American Historical Association recently received a $86,000 grant to digitize a portion of the Norse-American Centennial papers. The project is financed with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. Work is expected to be completed in early 2023.

The Norse-American Centennial in Minnesota

This 100th anniversary of Norwegian settlement provided an opportunity for Norwegian-Americans to celebrate their heritage and, more importantly, to demonstrate their American-ness. The celebrations, held in many North American cities and culminating in a major festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in June 1925, showed how Norwegian-Americans had already contributed, as well as how well they fit in their new homes. The celebrations constituted a complex process of identity building and a tricky balancing of old culture and new. 

Advertised as “The World’s Largest Gathering for 1925,” promoters described the Twin Cities celebration as “stupendous” and “monumental.” Events over the four-day period included speeches by Norwegian, Canadian, Icelandic, and American dignitaries, including U.S. President Calvin Coolidge; religious services; musical performances; displays of handcrafts, fine arts, and natural resources; and sporting events. The high point with a lavish “Pageant of the Northmen.” With a cast of 1,500, the melodramatic account of a thousand years of Norwegian history featured stories of heroic settlement, noteworthy individuals, and triumphs in the “new” world.

Brides of the Pageant of the Northman, St. Paul, Minnesota [umn392790]

The Norse-American Centennial was a historical moment that brought national attention to Minnesota’s Norwegian immigrant community. To rapt attendees this was a cultural celebration, but behind the scenes the event challenged Norwegian-American leaders, intellectuals, and the broader Norwegian-American community to reexamine their heritage and role as Americans. One year prior to the celebration, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 harshly defined insiders and outsiders. While northern Europeans fared relatively well under the new quota system, many Norwegian-Americans seized this moment as an opportunity to elevate their status and dispute negative stereotypes within the minds of their fellow Americans. 

Organization of a Celebration

The celebration was initiated by the general council of the bygdelag — local history clubs for Norwegian immigrants and their descendants organized by region of origin. The materials generated by the Norse-American Centennial, an association incorporated in 1925 in St. Paul, are rich and varied. The collection describes in detail the management of the celebration and gives data on observances outside of Minnesota, including Chicago, Canada, Boston, and Brooklyn. Letters and essays reveal the loyalty of Norwegian Americans to their cultural heritage, the rivalry among groups of Norwegians in America, and their internal struggles of understanding ethnic identity.

One of the chief organizers of the celebration was Gisle Bothne, a Norwegian-born professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He served as president of the Norse-American Centennial and was an officer in several organizations, including MNHS. Other officials whose work is documented include professor Johan A. Holvik, public servant Nels T. Moen, and immigrant author O. E. Rølvaag.

Documenting the Celebration

Correspondence of Norwegian-American leaders, intellectuals, politicians, music organizations, and others, including historian Knut Gjerset, Anders M. Sundheim of Augsburg Publishing House, and U.S. Congressman Harald Knutson.Reports and minutes documentation audits, budgets, committees, and promotion.

Exhibit material, receipts, and catalog of exhibits reflecting on Norwegian identity, literature, arts, crafts, relics and curios. Exhibits included important Norwegian-American authors and artists including Minnesotan artists Eugene Schar, Emil Bjorn, Olive Boe, O.A. Ness. 

Essays from the competition on “Why Celebrate the Centennial.” The winning submission was written by journalist and temperance leader Waldemar Ager. 

Clipping scrapbooks that cover various aspects of the celebration, including interest in the event from the Norwegian government, a proposal on the formation of NAHA, and nationwide press comments, including both praise and criticism of the event. 

Stay tuned for more updates on the Norse-American Centennial digitization project! If you are interested in learning more about this project, the Norse-American Centennial papers, or other collections in the NAHA Archives, please contact our archivist at naha-archivist@stolaf.edu

Funding for this project is provided to the Norwegian-American Historical Association through the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, a component of the Minnesota Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment, ratified by Minnesota voters in 2008. Commercial use or distribution of these digital materials is not permitted without prior permission of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.