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Arland O. Fiske: Homecoming to Hemsedal

We arrived late in Hemsedal. The shortcut through the mountains took longer than we had expected. It was 11:30 p.m. Our dinner was waiting for us at the hotel when we arrived. Normally it is pretty quiet in mountain villages by this time of the night, but not on the second Monday of

September when Norway elects parliament members. Just like Americans, people stay up half the night watching the returns on TV.

It was a close battle. Unlike America, Norway has over a half dozen political parties that run hard races. When the voting is over, they make their deals to see which coalition will elect the Prime Minister. The conservative group, that included the Farmer’s Party, barely squeaked by to hold power. The opposition was the liberal coalition that included the Labor Party. One of the big issues was NATO. Everyone I talked to favored staying in the alliance, but graffiti on the Oslo streets read “NATO UT” (“NATO Out”). When the votes were counted, Norway was still in.

Unlike my other ancestral communities in Norway, we found no kin in Hemsedal. I have learned since that they are there, but didn’t have adequate information. One surprise was to learn how readily people changed their names over a century ago. My great-grandparents from Hemsedal have Ole and Kari Bakken engraved on their tombstones near Walcott, N.D. Back in Hemsedal, they were known as “Hallen.” It’s not strange then that their children also took different names in America. Most of them chose Johnson, except for their son John who chose Olson. He claimed that there were too many Johnsons in the community. His mail kept getting mixed up with neighbors.

The most interesting discovery in Hemsedal was a place called “Skinnfellgarden” (“Fleece Court”) about two kilometers from the village. It is a collection of old houses from Hallingdal where Vult and Martin Simon carry on a business of making handmade clothing from lambskins. You can buy anything from a headband to a full-length coat. The unique feature of the product is the “krotingene,” the printing on leather with old secret symbols used in Norway about 250 years ago. They market their products all over Norway. I’ve even seen them displayed for sale at the Norsk Hostfest in Minot.

The Simons claim to be the only people who possess the secret of making dye by boiling the bark of alder or birch trees and imprinting it on leather with a wooden block. I purchased a lambskin winter cap in an old Norse pattern that is unusual light in weight and very warm. It feels pretty comfortable in the northlands during the cold and blustery days of winter.

The “kroting” on my cap is the symbol for life, taken from the picture of a spinal column. It was their belief that life was in the spine. It is my guess that is an old Norse idea derived from the fact that if a person received a blow on the back with a battle ax, life would depart. That seems likely to me.

In our homecoming to Hemsedal, we met no one in particular, but did catch a good view of the land of my earliest origins who immigrated to America. It’s a beautiful place for skiing, fishing and hiking. Ole and Kari, however, chose the prairies of the New World where they became farmers. I’m glad they did, but wish that mountain valley were a little closer.

Next Week: The Viking World.

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.