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Blue Highways: Oslo, Minnesota

Unfolding the Map

We have entered Minnesota with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), and it almost seems like we have entered Norway instead.  All the place names have changed to ones that evoke Scandinavia.  In this post, I'll look at little at why so many Scandinavians settled in the region.  If you would like to locate where Norwegians live but fjords are very scarce, click here for the map.

Book Quote

"I drove up the valley of the Red River of the North (which empties into Hudson Bay) and crossed into Oslo, Minnesota."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 10

Oslo, Minnestota in winter. Photo by "shu12" at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Oslo, Minnesota

You'll notice, as we travel through this set of stops in Minnesota with LHM, that there will be a lot of place names that refer to the area's Scandinavian roots.  In the quote I pulled for the previous post on Grand Forks, LHM refers to the city as being "clean as a Norwegian kitchen."  This post is centered on Oslo, Minnesota, the name taken from the capital of Norway.  The next post I do will be centered around Viking, Minnesota, with the obvious connotations.

How extensive is Scandinavian descent in the United States?  According to Wikipedia, while only 2% of all Americans claim Norwegian descent, 16.5 percent of Minnesotans claim Norwegian descent, as well as a whopping 33 percent of all North Dakotans.  Swedes make up 9.9 percent of Minnesota's populationDanes and Finns also have sizable populations in the state as well.  Why did so many Scandinavians settle in the upper Midwest?  One reason might have been economic conditions in the old country. Most Scandinavians, according to what I've read, appear to have settled in other areas before heading to places like Minnesota. Another reason was probably, in part, because the climate and conditions were a lot like their European homelands (minus the Norwegian fjords).  The Duluth area, where we'll be in a future post, attracted Scandinavians who fished for a livelihood because of its position at the western end of Lake Superior.  Also, displacement and resettlement of the Native Americans in the area made land available for cheap.

Make no mistake, these lands weren't a garden of Eden.  Living in them was harsh.  The summers could be brutally hot.  But the winters were, and still often are, extremely difficult.  Feet of snow on the ground, blizzard conditions for days.  Many homesteads were often buried in snow and cut off from other people until warmer weather made for easier traveling.  It took hardy people, used to harsh climates, to settle these areas and the Scandinavians fit that description.

When I first lived in Milwaukee, I was introduced to the Scandinavian heritage of the upper Midwest.  Milwaukee itself was not a Scandinavian city - it was settled by Germans, Irish, and Poles.  But people in Milwaukee used to make gentle fun of the Norwegians and Swedes up north, and even inherited some of their slang and expression that characterized their speech, such as using the expressive "uff da."  I was introduced to Ole and Lena jokes, which made fun of Scandinavian-American culture (sort of like Italian or Polish jokes).  Here's an example:

Ole and Lena was at the kitchen table for the usual morning cup of coffee and listening to a weather report coming from the radio.  "There will be 3 to 5 inches of snow today and a snow emergency has been declared. All vehicles should be parked on the odd-numbered side of the streets today to facilitate snowplows," the radio voice declared.

"Oh, gosh, OK," said Ole, getting up, bundling up and heading outside to dutifully put his car on the odd-numbered side of the street.

Two days later, Ole and Lena were at morning coffee when the radio voice said: "There will be 2 to 4 inches of snow today and a snow emergency has been declared. You must park your vehicles on the even-numbered side of the streets."  Ole got up from his coffee as before. He bundled up, shuffled off, and put his car on the even-numbered side of the street.

A few days later, the couple was at the table when the radio voice declared: "There will be 6 to 8 inches of snow today and a snow emergency has been declared. You must park your cars on the ..." Just then, the power went out.

"Park it where?" Ole asked in the dark, "What should I do?"

"Aw, to heck with them, Ole," Lena said, "Don't worry about it today. Just leave the car in the garage."

We'd hear about fish-boils and interesting food such as casseroles with potato chip toppings.  We'd wrinkle up our noses when we heard about the Norwegian delicacy of lutefisk, which involves soaking whitefish in lye until it is almost a gelatin.  While I've never had it, I've heard that it smells bad.

It was while I was in Milwaukee that I was introduced to National Public Radio and Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, which extolled and gently poked fun at the Scandinavian side of Minnesota in his News from Lake Wobegon segment on the show.  Many the protagonists in this ongoing series of stories seemed to have last names like Ingqvist and the town had The Sons of Knute fraternal organization and the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian (the model left before the sculptor could get his name).

All of this gave me a picture of the Scandinavians of the upper Midwest as being very dour, practical and industrious.  The population seemed all to be very matter of fact and not a lot of fun, though they were quick to make fun of themselves for these very characteristics.

It all jarred with my reality because I remembered that in my senior year of college, we had a couple of Norwegian foreign students on my dorm floor, and I remember these guys as being completely crazy.  They were pranksters, they drank a lot, they loved to tell jokes about the Swedes (because the Norwegians and the Swedes are rivals even though they have the same ethnic background).  If there was a noisy night on the dorm, if the Norwegian guys didn't start it they were surely in the middle of it.

Even in my present, a group of Scandinavian skiers that competed for the University of New Mexico lived four doors down from me.  They just moved out.  They were the typical Nordic athletic types - good looking, tended blond, extremely in shape.  They were also intense partiers and noisy.  If there was noise in the neighborhood, you didn't have to look any farther than the Nordic ski team down the block.  Their neighbor was glad they moved.

So what happened to those Norwegians and Swedes in the upper Midwest to make them so dour and serious that they make fun of themselves for it?  I'm not sure.  I do know, however, that I while I like Minnesota and would be happy to visit Minneapolis and St. Paul again, I really, really want to visit Scandinavia.  It seems like a fun, beautiful place and from what I hear, the people there are very friendly.  I also know that Scandinavian women are beautiful - not that I care that much...

Musical Interlude

This video is apropos of nothing to this post, other than it was a mid-1980s hit for this Norwegian band that went to number one.  It is also a pretty cool video.  Enjoy a-ha and Take On Me.

If you want to know more about Oslo

City of Oslo
Lakes 'n' Woods Guide to Oslo
Wikipedia: Oslo

Next up: Viking, Minnesota

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