In 1906, he was hired as an instructor in the Department of Norwegian at St. Olaf and in 1910 he would earn his master’s degree from the same institution. For over 20 years, he taught at St. Olaf. He also became the first secretary and archivist of the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) in 1925. St. Olaf, and the town of Northfield, became his new home. In addition to his family’s primary home in Northfield, the Rølvaag’s also had a cabin in Big Island Lake in northern Minnesota. The family spent many summer days at the cabin, and Ole had a steady schedule of writing, fishing, and sleeping. It was at this cabin that Ole Rølvaag wrote much of Giants in the Earth.
The Return to Norway and Rølvaag Bay
In 1905, Ole had the chance to study at the University of Oslo for one year. In June of 1906, as he was finishing his studies and preparing to return to Northfield, MN he wrote a letter to Jennie about his time in Dønna: “What shall I say and what shall I write? I don’t know, for I never experienced anything like it. The greatest blessing on earth is a home, and the greatest within the home is Mother. Can’t tell you what I felt when seeing my parents and my sisters and brothers. The feeling was so much unlike anything earthly I have experienced. Now I am only floating on love and good things to eat and drink. [. . .] I have been out fishing since I came and it went gloriously. We have had fish twice a day some days since I came home and that’s just what I like. But the nights up here now! You ought to see them –light as day. I am living as in a dream . . . I don’t know if you would like it this country but I know you will find it very strange, strange as a fairy land.”
While Ole would return to Norway occasionally in the future, during nearly every visit he became ill. Finally, during his last visit to Norway in 1928, his doctors persuaded him to return to Minnesota and remain there due to his declining health. Ole agreed and found that his heart and lungs were no longer strong enough for the cold temperatures in Norway.
Memoir of Youth
Before Ole Rølvaag’s death in 1931, he was working on a book entitled The Romance of a Life, that was mean to be a compilation of reminiscences from his life. He only wrote approximately forty pages before his death, and in 1939 Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum worked to turn his writing into a biography entitled Ole Edvart Rølvaag: A Biography. From Ole’s writing, it is clear that his home in Norway was at the forefront of his mind at the end of his life. His home in Dønna, his family, and his time on the sea are described if they are all right before his eyes.
“Not all memory pictures of the long ago stand out equally clearly. Some have been made dull and indistinct by much rubbing and by constant exposure to the light; others are just as clear now as the day the first impression was imprinted upon the retina of the mind.”
– Ole Rølvaag, “Ole Edvart Rølvaag, A Biography”
By 1931, after declining health, Ole knew, as well as his family, that his days on Earth were numbered and on November 5th he died holding Jennie’s hand. Upon his death, a large procession was led, in his honor, through St. Olaf’s campus. In 1944, the university library, Rølvaag Library, was named in his honor and remains the primary library on St. Olaf’s campus to this day.
Explore More Resources:
- Letter from Ole Rølvaag to Jennie Berdahl, 1906 June 6
- The Romance of a Life (Nora Solum translation) manuscript, circa 1931
- A Record of Teachers of Norwegian at St. Olaf College by Theodore Jorgenson
- Chapter 12: Erik Hetle and Ole Rølvaag in History of St. Olaf College, 1874-1974