Norwegian ‘lags’ return to roots

Published 10:39 am Monday, June 22, 2009

Many people whose ancestors came from Norway were in Albert Lea last week to research their roots and to take part in a cultural tradition going back to the city’s pioneer days.

Vestlandslag Stevne is the gathering of seven groups of people with roots in the westernmost lands of Norway — see how “vestland” sounds like “west land.” Each group is a “lag,” pronounced “log.” For instance, Vosselag is named for Voss, Norway. This meeting of Vestlandslag celebrates the centennial of Vosselag, which held its first meeting 100 years ago in the Freeborn County Courthouse.

One of the organizers, Richard Flisrand of Austin, said 180 people registered for last Friday’s banquet. Most of the activity with Vestlandslag Stevne took place at the Americas Best Value Inn on East Main Street, formerly the Ramada Inn.

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Started mainly as groups of people born in Norway or who understood the language, lags suffered dwindling membership as the former immigrants became part of the American melting pot. Many of them joined efforts to stay afloat.

A rising interest in genealogical research brought resurgence in attendance. Today, members of the lags typically are interested in genealogical research and learning more about cultural identity and ethnic origins.

Vestlandslag is the combination of Hardangerlag, Møre og Romsdalslag, Nordhordlandslag, Sunnhordlandslag, Rogalandslag, Sognalag and Vosselag.

Flisrand said people at the Vestlandslag Stevne as of Thursday were from California, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas.

One of them was Roger Lonning of Albert Lea. In fact, he gave a presentation on Thursday morning about researching newspapers to piece together family histories and relations.

Lonning, 82, said his ancestors hail from Sunnhordland, Norway. He lived in Thor, Iowa, until he was 8. Then his family moved to Allamakee County, Iowa. Thor, of course, was a Norwegian settlement, and he pointed out that he moved from one to nearby another — Decorah, Iowa. He moved to Albert Lea in 1957, which also was populated with many Norwegians.

He said by reading a newspaper account he had learned his grandfather’s sister had visited her brother, which gave him the knowledge that one lived in Callender, Iowa, and the other in nearby Fort Dodge.

Lonning said his message was to encourage researchers to enrich their genealogical history — not just this person begat that person.

He told stories of food prices and basket socials.

He also told how, at age 10, 11 or 12, he was thrilled to see his name in a newspaper for the first time. He said they subscribed to a weekly that would print people’s names if their birthday fell on the day the paper came out. His was on Lincoln’s birthday and often missed out because businesses were closed, but one February his birthday finally landed on the right day that the weekly published.

“I was so proud to have my name in the paper for the first time,” Lonning said.

On Thursday evening, Lonning took many members on a tour of Albert Lea to see Norwegian history, such as buildings designed by early Norwegians and the room in the courthouse were Vosselag first met.

He had nothing but praise for the event’s organizers, including Flisrand.

“Dick has done a fantastic job on this,” Lonning said.

On Thursday afternoon, Norwegian-Americans packed the large meeting room at the hotel to hear from Jane Grimstad of the Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library in Madison, Wis. — the main center in America for researching Norwegian roots.

On Friday, Vestlandslag celebrated Vosselag — is this language making sense now? — and retired surgeon Stand Nuland spoke this morning. A member of Vosselag, he has translated more than 3,000 materials from the Voss dialect of Norwegian to English, Flisrand said. His mother is from Voss.

And at 1 p.m. Friday genealogical researcher Eirik Helleve of Voss spoke for a program titled “Norwegian/Voss-American Viewpoints.”

Vestlandslag Stevne meets every year in different Midwest cities. Flisrand said Albert Lea is a good host city. The event ended at noon Saturday.

Last year, the gathering was held at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa. Next year’s location is undetermined.