SPRING GROVE — Located in the middle of what used to be called the Norwegian Ridge, Spring Grove in 1853 became the first permanent Norwegian settlement in Minnesota.
Early settlers taught Norwegian to their children, who taught it to their children, passing the language through the generations to this day. That type of dialect, in which differences occur from the native language because it's an isolated strain, is referred to as a heritage language.
"When they came to America, their language froze," said Bill Fried, the acting executive director for the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center in Spring Grove. "They only had whatever they learned when they left Norway."
In 2010, Dr. Joanne Bondi Johannessen, a linguist professor from the University of Oslo in Norway, visited Spring Grove as part of a larger study to observe and record the differences in the Norwegian language compared to Norway and other parts of the United States. Johannessen returned again in May.
"It's remarkable how well they have kept their language after all this time, and with not very much recent practice for many of them," Johannessen said.
Until now. The Norwegian language in Spring Grove is dying out. "Norwegian is still spoken in Spring Grove, but only by old people," Johannessen said. "The present speakers were discouraged to pass on the language to their children."
Emma Landsom, a participant in the study, grew up speaking Norwegian. Her grandmother, Bertha Berquam (traditionally spelled Berkuam) emigrated in 1876, and it was from her, and her parents, that Landsom learned the language. It wasn't until she went to country school just outside of Spring Grove that she learned English. "There were quite a few of us kids that spoke in Norwegian," she said of her school days.
Landsom still speaks the language today, but neither she nor her husband taught their kids. "It's too bad," she said, but the family upholds their heritage in other ways.
At Christmas time, Landsom and her family bake traditional Norwegian cookies, like Mandel Kaka (almond cookies), and after church they eat a meal of lutefisk, mashed potatoes and meatballs. Before eating, they all gather together and hold hands while Landsom says the prayer in Norwegian — a tradition she started a few years ago. "Then we feel more together, I think," she said.
The family, including Landsom's late husband, Milford, has also traveled to Norway. She has visited friends and relatives in Norway 11 times, once at the insistence of her granddaughter.
"She wanted to go over to Norway. So, I said, you and your dad can go over. 'No grandma,' she said. 'You talk Norwegian.' So she wanted me and Mil to go along. So we did, and we had a good time. Some of the other grandkids would like to go over too," Landsom said.
Norway can also be found in what Landsom calls her Norwegian room. Filled with Norwegian memorabilia from her trips, the room hosts a desk and plates painted in rosemaling, a handmade, wooden spinning wheel, and Norwegian gnomes, trinkets and books. She also has traditional Norwegian dresses that were passed down through the generations, as well as binders filled with her genealogy and heritage.
"This is the beginning from the first people. Their journey to America." she said of the binders.
Though the language may be fading, Spring Grove's Norwegian heritage is still strong. "We're trying to hold on to the things that make Spring Grove unique," Fried said.
The Sons of Norway, an international group dedicated to preserving and sharing Norwegian heritage, of which Landsom is a part, is very active in Spring Grove. In addition, the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center is dedicated to upholding all traditions, including Norwegian ones. It offers classes and exhibits, and an online genealogical database for people to access their heritage. The center also hosts Homecoming every 10 years. It's a large celebration that gives those with Spring Grove/Norwegian roots an opportunity to come back and reconnect. The next Homecoming is set for 2017.
Spring Grove also has two annual Norwegian festivals: Syttende Mai (17 of May), the Norwegian Independence day; and Uffda fest, a celebration of autumn in Spring Grove.
"It is striking and touching to see how much the language and the Norwegian-ness means to the people we have met," Johannessen said. "In Norway, people often think that American things are better, and that Norwegian things and traditions are just old-fashioned. Coming to Spring Grove and the Midwest makes me see Norway in a different perspective."