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History is re-created on Beaver Creek farm

Doreen Rollag poses next to the rock at the driveway to the Rollag family farm near Beaver Creek. The Rollag sod house built there in the 1870s was replicated for a Minnesota History Center exhibit

BEAVER CREEK -- The Minnesota History Center introduced its "Then, Now, Wow" exhibit on Thanksgiving weekend, but it wasn't until just a couple of weeks ago that a Beaver Creek woman toured the place to see a replica of the 1880s-era sod house that once stood on her family's farm.

At 87, Doreen Rollag said she couldn't believe how much was done to make the 14- by 16-foot, one-room house look as one might imagine the house her late husband's grandparents once inhabited on the rolling prairie west of Beaver Creek. Ole and Grace (referenced by the family as Gro, the Norwegian version) Rolla settled on a quarter-section there in 1874.

"They lived in the sod hut for seven years, and then they started to build this home," Doreen Rollag said of the farm now tended to by the fourth generation of Rollags, her sons Craig and Kevin.

"It's a beautiful setting -- the creek runs through here," she added. "I can see why they came from Norway."

An entire history book is filled with the story of the Rollag family, and Ole and Gro's emigration to America, as well as their prairie life, are mentioned numerous times in the David Laskin book, "The Children's Blizzard."

Laskin's book includes excerpts from Gro Rollag's Memoir, "Recollections from the Old Days," which are also quoted in the Minnesota History Center exhibit.

The elder Rollags, who grew up on neighboring farms, emigrated to America on April 24, 1873, just days after they married. They left behind family and the only home they'd ever known outside of Tinn in southern Norway.

"We were 13 days on the Atlantic and landed at Boston. From there, we went west in a railroad boxcar. We took a little snack for the journey -- a piece of sausage and a few crackers each," wrote Gro Rollag in her memoir -- words now featured in the Minnesota History Center exhibit.

The couple had planned to find land and begin farming near Decorah, Iowa, as several Norwegian relatives who had settled there wrote letters home telling of the rich black soil that was free for the taking.

By the time Ole and Gro arrived, however, there was no more land available. They ended up staying with a relative at Decorah for about a year before following rumors of available land in Rock County.

"They borrowed $75 to start farming," said Doreen Rollag as she paged through legal documents about the land purchase. "It cost very little to put the money down for the deed."

The rest of the money was used for a yoke of oxen, a wagon and two cows.

It took the Rollags three weeks to reach their destination in Rock County. They signed their homestead papers on June 20, 1874, securing a 160-acre parcel in Section 13 of Beaver Creek Township.

Doreen Rollag believes the sod house stood just across the driveway from where the current, 1880's-era farmhouse still stands. She said the old home will be torn down this year and a new home built for her on the land.

While certainly not old enough to have lived in a sod house, Doreen recalled stories from her own mother about a steer falling through the roof of a sod dugout. She can't imagine what it must have been like for Ole and Gro.

"Sod houses didn't last that long," she said. The Rollag sod house was covered with wooden plank board and topped with sod.

"One day we thought it was raining, but instead of drops of water rattling on the roof boards, it was grasshoppers," Gro said in another featured quote in the Minnesota History Center exhibit. "We looked at our little garden and potato patch, and it wasn't long before everything was taken slick and clean all around us."

Ole and Gro raised three sons on the farm -- Peder, Charel and Nils. The family is credited with helping start the Palisade Lutheran Church, Doreen said of the country church just a mile up the road from their farm.

Julianna Olsen, communications manager with the Minnesota Historical Society, said the Rollag family's sod house was selected to be replicated for the exhibit because they had access to the Rollag story.

"We were able to flush out their story in pretty good detail on the prairie," she said. "That's one reason why we chose their house."

The sod house is one of several pieces in the "Then, Now, Wow" exhibit, which is the largest exhibit ever created by the Minnesota Historical Society. Also included in the exhibit are a modern teepee, a Twin Cities streetcar, an Iron Range mine experience and a Soo Line boxcar filled with information about the Latino emigration in Worthington and southwest Minnesota.

Designed as an interactive exhibit for children and families, Olsen said Then, Now, Wow has drawn lots of interest from visitors to the history center. They can learn about all different facets of life in Minnesota, from farming to fur trading and from mining to the metropolis. Included in the exhibit is the emergency exit door from the school bus involved in the I-35W bridge collapse. The door is signed by all of the children and adults who were aboard the bus at the time.

"There's so much for kids to do -- not just read and see, but take part in -- they have a great time while they're also learning about Minnesota history," Olsen said.

"Then, Now, Wow" is considered a permanent exhibit, which Olsen said means it will be open for about 10 years. The Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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