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Arland O. Fiske: Rasmus B. Anderson and King Frederick’s pipe

Rasmus B. Anderson (1846-1936) was proud of his pipe. It once had belonged to Denmark’s King Frederick VII. Anderson’s story, however, is a proud chapter in Scandinavian-American heritage, even without the pipe.

Born in Koshkong, a short distance south of Madison, it was one of the two earliest Norwegian settlements in Wisconsin. His father had owned a small trading vessel in southwest Norway. He was a born rebel. Besides being a Quaker, something frowned upon in Norway, he helped to promote “America Fever.”

Rasmus’ mother was from a prominent military family, as her name, Von Krogh, might indicate. Her granduncle was the commander of the Norwegian armies. His German name is a reminder that Danes and Germans usually held posts of importance in Norway. People of Norwegian ancestry were not considered capable of high positions by the government in Copenhagen. When she married a Norwegian peasant, there was nothing to do but go to America.

Rasmus was only 4 years old when his father died of cholera, which descended like a plague in those days. His mother was a cousin of Mrs. A. C. Preus, the wife of a pioneer pastor in Koshkonong. Through her influence, young Rasmus entered the first class at Luther College (1861) when it opened at “Half Way Creek Academy” in Wisconsin. The school had a Spartan beginning. The parsonage served as the campus. A boy’s school, the students slept, dressed, wrote, recited and visited in one upstairs room.

Humble beginnings need not be a limiting factor for a person’s growth and development. There are many of us who received our early education in a one-room country school. It was there Rasmus began the study of languages, math, history, literature and other courses that were to prepare him to become the first Scandinavian in America to be appointed to a diplomatic office. He became ambassador to Denmark in 1885. He was also a distinguished professor at the University of Wisconsin.

While in Copenhagen, Anderson became a friend with a Jewish writer named Adler, who had bought the pipe at an auction that once belonged to King Frederick VII. When he was about to return to America, Adler gave it to him as a present.

How did the pipe come to be sold? Usually these things are kept as mementos and put in museums. King Frederick VII had expected to become Norway’s first king after the constitution was signed May 17, 1814. But the British forced the Danish king to sign Norway over to the king of Sweden after the Napoleonic wars on Jan. 14, 1814 at the Treaty of Kiel. Denmark had reluctantly sided with Napoleon, under military threat from France. So Christian Frederick had to return to Denmark and wait his turn to become king there. He did one remarkable thing. He used his absolute power to give Denmark a constitution in 1858, like the one he helped Norway to obtain. It surprised people he would give up power because Danish kings ruled without a constitution.

The royal family was not pleased when he married a dressmaker. She had all the qualifications to be a queen, except bloodline. It was a happy marriage. When they died, the government got its revenge. Their possessions were sold at a public auction, soiled by the hands of a commoner,

Anderson understood the royal snub, since his mother had also fallen from favor by marrying below her class. So when a good friend came to visit Anderson, he’d hand him the royal pipe and say, “Take a puff and be a king.”

An excellent biography of Anderson entitled “Rasmus B. Anderson,” was written by the late professor Lloyd Hustvedt of St. Olaf College and is available from the Norwegian-American historical Association at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

Next week: Jens Hanson and the Vatican Library.

— 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.