Whatever became of many Norwegians?Since early fall we have been in pursuit of Nobles County’s “lost” Norwegian communities. There remain but three notable country cemeteries to affirm there once were Norwegians here.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Since early fall we have been in pursuit of Nobles County’s “lost” Norwegian communities. There remain but three notable country cemeteries to affirm there once were Norwegians here.
You can believe I experienced something like a siege from present-day Norwegians. Not hostile. Oh no. People trying to help.
“You missed the most famous Norwegian who ever walked in Nobles County,” I was told. “You missed Ole Rolvaag.”
True. Ole Rolvaag’s honored novel, “Giants in the Earth,” one of the important American novels, is the only volume in classic literature which talks of our region.
Rolvaag traces the immigrant wagon train led by Per Hansa:
“ … For more than three weeks now, and well into the fourth, this caravan had been crawling across the plain. . . . Early in the journey it had passed through Blue Earth; it had left Chain Lakes behind; and one fine day it had crept into Jackson, on the Des Moines River. But that seemed ages ago. . . . From Jackson, after a short lay-up, it had pushed on westward - always westward - to Worthington, then to Rock River. …”
Ole Rolvaag came to South Dakota’s Lincoln County — Canton — which is (approximately) the same distance from Worthington as is Sioux Falls. An hour can get you there.
Canton, S.D., has two stories which make it arguably the most remarkable of all the communities across our region.
Story 1: Canton is the only city from our neck of the prairie (I believe) which once had special trains rolling to it, trains from Denver, from the Twin Cities, from Chicago.
A Norwegian (of course) ski master arranged a skiing exhibition at Canton in 1911. By 1912, Canton volunteers had cleared a slope, built a scaffold and a ski jump. Skiers dropped 275 feet across one-eighth of a mile — 100 miles per hour.
Enthusiasm grew. By February, 1925, 5,000 people came to Canton for a national competition. By 1932 the crowds were near 20,000. Special trains were rolling. People came to see Winter Olympics trials. National champions, international champions, Olympics contenders. Canton offered an Olympics taste.
Funny thing happened. The last national ski event at Canton was scheduled in 1957. February; no snow. A huge crew (you can imagine) was recruited to fill trucks with snow at Spirit Lake and Lake Okoboji. The snow was heaped into train cars bound for Canton. In vain. The snow turned to slush on the slopes. Plummeting temperatures turned the slush to rough ice.
That was the end of national ski events at Canton. The ski hill — the tournament site — still can be seen.
Story 2: Of all things — of all things — in 1898 the U.S. Congress voted (in the language of the time) an insane asylum for Native Americans at Canton. Hiawatha Insane Asylum. The campus, a very large campus, opened in 1903. Visitors drove by slowly to gawk.
Of course there is a catalogue of tragedies. Rambunctious and rebellious youths were ruled insane. People who made trouble, religious people, were ruled insane. They were sent to Canton from all across America. Padlocked in rooms. Strapped in beds.
Names of 121 persons who died at Hiawatha have been uncovered. The total of deaths is not known. There is a cemetery but Congress authorized no money for grave markers.
A lamentable curiosity: that asylum cemetery is in the middle of a Canton golf course. There is no other like it. A ground rule: if a golf ball lands on a grave, “the player will take a free drop and play the shot outside the cemetery.”
Stories from a city nurtured by Norwegian immigrants.
Back to Nobles County.
One more Norwegian mystery.
Cecil Johnson, late of Round Lake, once told me about the house in which he and Lorraine reared their family:
“My grandfather — Edward Johnson — built this house. There was a Norwegian church outside of town. They tore that down and hauled the lumber here with horses. Dug the basement with horses. The kids get a kick out of it when I say this is a holy house …”
Norwegian communities in Lismore Township, Little Rock Township, Ransom Township - and outside Round Lake. Four congregations. Every one of them gone. Nothing left but three cemeteries.
What became of those people?
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.