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October 21: Nels Berger and the King of Norway

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On this date in 1995 the Bismarck Tribune reported that Nels Berger of Williston received a birthday telegraph from King Harald V, King of Norway. Why would the king want to congratulate a retired farmer in North Dakota? Well, not only was Nels Berger originally from Norway, but he had turned 110, making him the oldest person in the state.

Berger was born in Odalen, Norway, on October 20th, 1885. He attended school until he was 13. He loved reading about America, and at age 20, decided to move there. He arrived in 1906, moving in with an uncle in Minnesota. He then spent time in Rugby, North Dakota; Saskatchewan; and Montana. Nels eventually landed in the Springbrook area, where he started a livery business with a friend. In 1910 he homesteaded 12 miles from Springbrook, and married Tilla Melland in 1911. Together they had four children.

Nels’s first car was a 1916 Model T, and he bought his first radio in 1923. Nels retired from farming in 1960 at the age of 75. Tilla died in 1985 at the age of 90. They were married for 74 years.

Four years after Tilla’s death, Nels widowed daughter moved in with him. In 1992, he moved into a nursing home. He was 107 years old. A few days before Nels’ 110th birthday, the Bismarck Tribune ran an article about his life and the upcoming milestone. A staff member for Representative Earl Pomeroy saw the article. They also knew that King Harald was going to be visiting Concordia College in Moorhead, and thought it would be wonderful if Nels could meet the king. The Norwegian Embassy was contacted, and upon reading the article about Nels, the king was eager to meet him.

The Williston community rallied around Nels and arranged for him to fly to Fargo for the king’s visit. But Nels needed to conserve his strength, and the flight was canceled. So, the King sent Nels a telegram that read, “I send my heartfelt greetings on your 110th Birthday.” Nels was thrilled with the telegram, which was written in Norwegian.

Nels lived for several more months, passing away on September 22, 1996, a month before his 111th birthday.

Dakota Datebook by Trista Raezer-Stursa

Sources:

  • Author Unknown, “Nels Berger,” The Bismarck Tribune, September 25, 1996, pg. 11A.
  • Hunt, Linda, “Royal Telegraph Brings 110th Birthday Greetings,” The Bismarck Tribune, October 21, 1995, pg. 1.
  • Hunt, Linda, “Senator Visits 110-year-old Williston Man,” The Bismarck Tribune, April 10, 1996, pg. 2B.
  • Hunt, Linda, “Williston Man Celebrating 110th Birthday,” The Bismarck Tribune, October 17, 1995, pg. 1.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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