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Arland Fiske: The Ola and Per comics

From 1918 to 1935, Peter Julius Rosendahl (1878- 1942), a farmer from Spring Grove, Minn., produced the comic series “Ola og Per” (“Ole and Peter”). It had a large readership, even though produced only in off-seasons.

The first newspaper to carry the series was the Decorah- Posten, well known among Norwegian-Americans immigrant families. The cartoons were used to increase the newspaper’s circulation. It reached 45,000 in the 1920s, but dropped to 35,000 by 1950. In 1972, the subscription list was sold to the Western Viking in Seattle, now the Norwegian American Weekly, which continues to reprint the newspaper. When I asked my mother if she had read “Ola og Per,” she gave an immediate recollection.

Born of Norwegian immigrant parents, Rosendahl also wrote poetry and song text. Besides drawing cartoons, he painted portraits. He traveled very little, and his only formal schooling was a correspondence course in cartooning from a school in Minneapolis. His father was from Hadeland, near Oslo, and his wife was a Halling. These places were also the backgrounds for the two main characters. Ola, the Halling, wore overalls and carried a pitchfork over his shoulder. Per, the Hadeling, appeared in a long-tailed suit and carried a big monkey wrench around the farm. In contrast to Ola, who was short, stocky, sensible and hard-working, Per was tall and a lanky dreamer.

The comic strip included Per’s brother Lars. He was university educated, but was absolutely useless on the farm. Having no idea how to harness a horse, he became the butt of community jokes. Polla, Ola’s plump wife who came from Fargo, preferred city life and had no idea how to milk a cow. Her mother came out to the farm and turned out to be a real “battle- ax.”

These cartoons helped to popularize Norwegian stories that some Norwegian-Americans get a charge out of telling today. You can imagine the immigrants gathering in the small town cafe and roaring with laughter over such numskull stories and riddles. After 1935, Rosendahl refused to draw any more cartoons and in 1942 took his own life.

The “Ola og Per” comics used a slapstick approach to picture Norwegian-American life. They were in the style of “Mutt and Jeff, the “Katzenjammer Kids” and “Bringing up Father” (for those of you who can remember that far back). The Norwegian dialects come through in the cartoons.

A new volume titled Han Ola og Han Per (“He’s Ole and He’s Peter”) was published both in Norwegian and in English. It contains the first 223 comic strips of the 599 published. Edited by Joan Buckley and Einar Haugen, it was published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association and the University Press in Oslo. One of the interesting features of the book is the vocabulary list at the bottom of each page. It’s a good way to learn the folksy language of the immigrants, half-filled with English.

These cartoons dealt with the struggles of the immigrants in a strange land. The characters have both foibles and redeeming qualities. While many of the scenes were “violent,” nobody ever got hurt. It’s mostly reflexive humor. It turns back on the person who tries to be dramatic or too clever. We are indebted to the editors and publishers for making this fine volume available.

The people of Spring Grove regard Rosendahl as one of their local heroes and have erected a statue to honor him.

Next week: Halvdan the Black.

Online: Norwegian American Weekly: aweekly

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, including 2012's “Sermons in Psalms.”