Arland O. Fiske: The story of Hans Hyldbakk ‘King of the Cliff’
“Kleivakongen,” “King of the Cliff,” they called him.
Hans Hyldbakk was the best known person in Surnadal, my family’s ancestral valley, about 75 miles southwest of Trondheim.
He was born on May 8, 1898. At 88, he was waiting for another book of poems to be published.
In addition to poetry, Hyldbakk published seven large volumes of local history called “bygdeboker.”
My wife, Gerda, and I visited this famous writer in September 1985.
It was a moment of excitement.
He was the only living link between our family before the immigration and myself.
After Grandpa Ola (Ole) Olsen Fiske immigrated to America in 1892, great-grandmother Margrethe was left alone with her small herd of cattle and goats.
During the summers, she assumed the role of a dairymaid and went up to the Fiske seter (summer pasture, pronounced, SAY-ter) in the Trollheim Mountains. Great-grandfather Alf Olsen Fiske died in 1890.
In 1910, when Hans was 12, he was a “gjaeter” (pronounced YAY-ter, literally a “goatherd”) in the seter.
He wrote a poem about Margrethe, describing her as the best of the dairymaids.
Magne Holten, a journalist in Surnadal, translated it for me.
The old poetic language presents problems for translators, even Magne.
When Margrethe served the boys cream for their bread, she dipped deep into the container to bring up the thickest and sweetest.
She also darned their socks, dried their wet clothes and made their beds. They didn’t forget.
Margrethe lived until 1920 and never saw grandpa Ole after he went to North Dakota.
I discovered this good woman a few years ago, and now her picture hangs proudly in our home.
Hyldbakk lived in a small hytte (cottage) high above the village.
To arrive there we had to drive through cattle gates over a switchback trail. Holten took us to see Hyldbakk.
It was a beautifully cool morning with bright sunshine.
I could understand why Hans liked it up there. He had a telephone, but neither radio nor television.
As we sat across the table from each other, I felt an instant camaraderie with this spry and modest man who had researched the records and traced my family roots to 1520.
Some years ago, another Surnadal journalist led a movement to get the University of Oslo to give Hyldbakk an honorary doctorate.
When learning of it, he made it clear that the degree would be refused.
Instead, a bust of Hyldbakk was placed near the Court House. We had our picture taken by it.
A few weeks after returning home to America, a newspaper arrived from Surnadal.
There was a full-page story by Holten about our visit.
The headline read, “Prest med roter fra Fiske pa Surnadals-visit” (“Priest with roots from Fiske on a Surnadal visit”).
There was a picture of Hyldbakk standing between Gerda and myself. Another Norwegian writer advised me that Norwegians consider a man fortunate if he has a Danish wife.
That made me a success in Surnadal!
To top off the trip, Hyldbakk identified some previously unknown relatives.
When taking leave of this delightful gentleman, I promised to write a story about him.
He replied with a smile, “Then I’ll be famous in America.”
In 1998, the community remembered his 100th birthday with a big celebration.
He died Oct. 18, 2001, his life having spanned three centuries. I am glad we got to meet him.
Next week: Lindholm Hoje: Winter Viking camp in Denmark.
— 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.