A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America - 1975

A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America - 0805753656 - Front Cover

Odd Sverre Lovoll, A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America, © 1975 Norwegian-American Historical Association, Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston, Hardcover, 326 Pages, 0-8057-5365-6, 917.3'06'3982, Published 15 September 1975, Based on the author's thesis, University of Minnesota.

Increased scholarly concern for the experience of the ordinary man has given us a “bottom-up” approach to social history. This volume examines a significant movement that has its roots in the lives and circumstances of the common man. It deals specifically with the process of adjustment experienced by the thousands who came to these shores from Norway.

These immigrants were largely from rural areas. Uprooted from the security of an old- world society, they reorganized their lives, restructured old institutions and created new ones. Their ability to re-establish familiar cultural and social patterns eased their transition into American society, thus refuting the theory of total alienation and disruption in the lives of immigrants.

The bygdelag. the subject of this book, are societies that attempt to perpetuate the more intimate and cherished aspects of the Norwegian heritage. These organizations reveal a strong attachment to old-country locality, to distinct scenic features, and to regional traditions and values.

The Norwegian-American campanilismo — the intense parochial sentiment and the feeling of kinship with former neighbors in the homeland — can best be understood in terms of the extreme isolation of rural communities in Norway.

Through the centuries this separation developed regional types, differences in personality, customs, traditions and, above all, language.

When people reared in the segregated valleys, the highland districts or the fjord regions of Norway became scattered in widely separated settlements in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere, they longed for and sought the warmth of familiar ways and the fellowship of kindred folk.

The passing of frontier conditions and a relative prosperity toward the end of the nineteenth century made it possible to seek further afield for social relationships.

The bygdelag. which came into being early in this century, satisfied this need for a sense of community by arranging summer reunions of people from the same old- country region. These reunions provided a setting in which the ancestral bygd (community) could again be brought to mind.

Close to half a hundred national bygdelag societies formed. They represent the low culture of the homeland. Their objectives have been to restore the acquaintanceship of former neighbors, to preserve and cultivate traditions in song, dance, and fiddle playing, to perpetuate memories of the old-home districts, to guard a pious religious heritage, and to collect and publish records relating to their own groups.

Their modest publications in the form of yearbooks and periodicals offer valuable information on settlement and pioneer life.

At the height of bygdelag activity before World War I. and again in the 1920s, some 75,000 persons came together annually — the individual reunions attracting numbers that might vary from one or two hundred in the small societies to several thousand in the larger ones. An understanding of the sentiments expressed at these gatherings contributes to history “from the inside out."

Dr. Lovoll, the author of A Folk Epic, was born in Norway, where he also had his undergraduate education, but attended high school in Seattle and received a Ph.D. degree in history at the University of Minnesota. He is currently on the faculty of St. Olaf College.


  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • I The Bygd In The New World
  • II Launching A Movement
  • III The Regional Impulse
  • IV Growth of an Idea
  • V An Immigrant Comment
  • VI A Time Of Testing
  • VII The Last Rally
  • VIII The Passing Of An Era
  • IX After World War II
  • X Bygdelag Contributions
  • Appendix
  • Notes and References
  • A Selected Bibliography
  • Index

List of Illustrations

  • The Old-World Homes of the Bygdelag Folk
  • A. A. Veblen
  • D. G. Ristad
  • Centers of Bygdelag Activity
  • First Page of the Minutes Book for Sognalaget
  • Bjørgulv Bjørnaraa
  • Setesdalslaget Stevne in Mac Intosh, Minnesota, 1912
  • Bygdelag Periodicals
  • Special Bygdelag Section of Decorah-Posten
  • Hallingstevne at Brooten, Minnesota, 1911
  • Bygdelag Representatives Meeting In Minneapolis, November 8, 1911
  • Norwegian-American Pavilion, Centennial Exhibition, 1941
  • Faces At the Minnesota Fair Grounds, 1914
  • "What Minneapolis Tribune's Cartoonist saw. . ."
    Hardangerlaget in Willmar, Minnesota, 1915
  • Pacific Coast Focal Points
  • Chorus of Singers Form Norwegian Flag, Norse-American Centennial
  • Celebration, 1925
  • Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, 1925
  • "A Hallinglag in Spring Grove, Minnesota"
  • O. I. Hertsgaard
  • Harding Fiddler and Group in National Costumes


It is highly appropriate that A Folk Epic should be the first, if not the only, major Association publication in 1975, the 150th anniversary of the beginnings of organized emigration from Norway. Migration, from the sailing of the sloop Restauration in 1825 and continuing through the century that followed, was a movement essentially of common folk in search of greater freedom and a richer life in the New World.

In the main their dreams were realized, but the immigrants, many of them uprooted for the first time from the soil that had nourished them and their forebears, also knew the pangs of nostalgia that grow out of attachment to old homes and strong feelings for distant kin.

The bygdelag, the subject of this volume, were essentially social organizations of people from the same homeland district—usually rural. They date their origin from 1899, when immigrants from Valdres met in Minneapolis. More significantly, about fifty other lag with nationwide appeal were formed thereafter. Many with members drawn from a limited geographical area also proudly made their appearance.

Their annual stevner (meetings), the high point of their activity, were colorful demonstrations of local old-country speech, food, customs, and characteristics—a welcome relief to the transplanted Americans from the monotony and strain of their everyday life. A movement affecting a significant number of Norwegian immigrants naturally challenged the Norwegian-American Historical Association and invited the interest of the serious scholar.

Early in 1938 the Bygdelagenes Fællesraad (National Council) of the lag began an effort to research and record the history of its member societies, and in 1952 it appointed a committee to negotiate with the Association.

It was not until after 1966, however, that a new committee headed by O. I. Hertsgaard was able to secure either the money or the source materials essential for the start of the project. In 1969, I invited Odd S. Lovoll, who was then beginning his work toward a doctoral degree, to undertake the task of writing the history of the bygdelag in America.

The product of his study, generously supported by the Fællesraad, is presented here as the work of a mature scholar who sees in the movement he researched the most popular expression of "Norwegian Americanism." Dr. Lovoll, assistant professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College, is a member of the Association’s Board of Publications.

Acknowledgments of assistance to the author are found elsewhere. Mention, however, should be made of the help given by the following persons in the preparation of the volume: Eric J. Nilsen, then a student at St. Olaf, who drew the maps; Elaine Kringen, assistant to the Association’s Secretary, who typed the final manuscript; Ralph L. Henry, retired professor of English at Carleton College, who gave me invaluable assistance in the editing process; and Charlotte M. Jacobson, Archivist of the Association, who prepared the index.

St. Olaf College

Library of Congress Catalog Listing

LC control no.: 74018430
Type of material: Book (Print, Microform, Electronic, etc.)
Personal name: Lovoll, Odd Sverre.
Main title: A folk epic: the bygdelag in America.
Published/Created: Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1975
Description: 326 p. illus., 24 cm.
LC classification: E184.S2 L68
ISBN-10: 0805753656
ISBN-13: 978-0805753653
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