“Kan du glemme gamle Norge?” (“Can you forget old Norway?”) This song is still sung by the children of immigrants who have never seen the shores of that far north land. But what was “old Norway” like?
Jon Leirfall, from Stjordalen in the Trondheim area, wrote an excellent book entitled Old Times in Norway. It’s one of the most helpful books I’ve read to understand the Norway that shaped the lives of the immigrant period (1825-1925) and even affected my life.
Leirfall, born in 1899, was famous in Norway both as a writer and a politician. He was a prominent leader in the Farmer’s Party (Bondepartiet) and was a member of the Parliament from 1945 to 1969. He was a “grass roots” historian with a good sense of humor.
He was also an honorary citizen of Minneapolis. Leirfall attended the 1986 Norsk Hostfest and was introduced as a relative of Myron Floren, the famous accordion player. I found him to be a delightful gentleman.
According to Leirfall, the new Norway began to emerge about 1840, although it took several generations before the change was complete. I suspect that traces of “old Norway” are as likely to be found in some parts of America as in Norway today.
Reading his book helped me to understand my own past. There are somethings that I had supposed were the peculiarities of the immigrants that were rooted in a thousand or more years of culture. It was only in America that they stood out as being different.
Leirfall explained the terminology needed to understand life in the old country. Such terms as “bygd” (rural community), “gaard” (farm), “smaabruk” (cotter’s farm) are explained with examples.
He told what it was like to be a child growing up in those days when education, though limited, was highly honored, making Norwegian immigrants some of the most literate newcomers in America. That’s why they rose quickly to positions of leadership, especially in politics.
In the age before instant communications, evenings were spent around a fireplace telling and re-telling the stories that were part of the community. The paraffin lamp and the kitchen stove greatly altered this pattern.
I especially enjoyed Leirfall’s description of the cotter’s life. These were the small farmers on the edge of the main farm. Since the big farm went by law to the oldest son (for which he was bound to care for his parents as long as they lived), younger sons had to move out. Many of them cleared patches of ground on the mountainsides and eked out a living by their tiny cottages.
The cotter also had to work for the “bonder” (the boss farmer) to pay rent. When the immigration to northern Norway and America took place, thousands of these cottages became vacant and farm workers became scarce.
It was not long before letters arrived from America telling about the wonders of the New World with its opportunities and freedom. When some of the successful immigrants began to return, usually at Christmas time, they were honored almost as royalty. All their past offenses and foolishness for leaving Norway were forgiven.
During the 19th century, after Norway came under the rule of the Swedish king, a spirit of nationalism arose. The constitution of 1814 inspired the drive to have a completely free nation to choose its own destiny.
With the overload of population going mostly to America (800,000 out of a population of 1,700,000 in 1865), poverty decreased and the rights of the common people were asserted. The cotters (just the men) were given the right to vote in 1884 and universal suffrage was granted in 1897. Norway was second only to Finland in giving women the right to vote.
During the Danish period (1380-1814) when Norway was ruled from Copenhagen, the written language took on a great deal of Danish spelling. During the Swedish period (1814-1905), Norwegians started to return to “Old Norse.” For example, “Hagen” was restored to “Haakon,” especially out of respect to their new king, Haakon VII (reigned from 1905 to 1958). “Dahl” (valley) returned to “dal.”
My paternal grandmother’s name was “Beret.” I had wondered why her mother and grandmother, besides two sisters also had this name. Leirfall explained that custom dictated the names of both sons and daughters.
My mother’s name, Anne, as well as Jorun, has occurred for many generations in our family. The name Anne (pronounced (“AH-neh”) is carried through to two of our granddaughters. That’s a good Norwegian custom.
The big event of a community was a wedding. In the old days, the party could last for a whole week. Among my Halling ancestors, this could be a frightening time. The “Kniv-Hallings” wore knives and fighting often erupted when too much liquor was served at these drawn out celebrations.
In anticipation of this, many wives packed their husband’s burial clothes when they went to a “bryllup” (wedding). The morning after the ceremony, they were all served “Rommegrot” (cream pudding) for breakfast. This continues to be a delicacy among many children of the immigrants.
The old ways have passed. And it’s a good thing, too, because they were filled with unnecessary taboos and fears. Infant mortality was high, and so was death from childbirth among mothers. Medical understanding was extremely limited both in expertise and availability.
Still, those days continue to beckon with nostalgia and we continue to sing with emotion, “Kan du glemme gamle Norge?” Leirfall helped us not to forget.
Next week: “Vikings in the Turtle Mountains?”