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Monumental Matters

In Oslo last summer, we called in at the Gustav Vigeland Museum, adjacent to Frogner Park. In a cluttered corner of the museum I espied something that signified nothing to other visitors, but meant something to me. It was a plaster cast of Norway’s great Romantic poet, Henrik Wergeland. I recognized this as the original study for the bronze statue of Wergeland that stands in Island Park of Fargo.

A few days later we were walking around the coastal town of Kristiansand, and darned if we didn’t spot another bronze Wergeland, identical to the one in Fargo! We learned that Vigeland had the commission to cast the bronze for Wergeland’s home town of Kristiansand. Somehow Herman Fjelde of Abercrombie, North Dakota, got wind of this, and a second bronze ended up in Fargo.

On our last night in Oslo we Ubered over to Vår Frelsers cemetery at dusk to pay our respects to the lovely monument on Wergeland’s grave. Nearby I made an Instagram reel of the tomb of Bjornsterne Bjornson, which quickly racked up 87,000 views. These Norwegians are great people for monuments. Come to think of it, too, eastern North Dakota is bespangled with Norwegian monuments: the Bjornsterne Bjornson bautastein on the NDSU campus and another one in Mayville; the Ivar Aasen bust across the river at Concordia College; the Rollo statue near the Sons of Norway lodge; and others I probably am forgetting.

The only immigrant identity that outnumbers the Norwegians in North Dakota is the Germans from Russia—but where are their monuments? We may say, their spectacular Roman Catholic churches, those are their monuments, and there also are many religious folk monuments all over German-Russian Country—but no such statement of a self-conscious immigrant identity as a Bjornson or a Wergeland is to the Norwegians.

What if we were to fill that monumental niche? German-Russians in other places on the plains have done so. Alongside the Esplanade in Medicine Hat, Alberta, is a dandy bronze of a German-Russian man and woman stooking wheat together. The creation of sculptor Jim Hauser, this installation speaks well to the agricultural proclivities and the gender roles of German-Russian immigrants to the Canadian prairies.

In the Volga German country of western Kansas, specifically the town of Victoria, and across the street from the Cathedral of the Plains, St. Fidelis, is a splendid sculpture by Pete Felton, the master of limestone. It depicts a German-Russian couple, their four children, and, I am happy to note, their dog.

What are we waiting for? I propose we get organized and commence installations to assert the German-Russian presence on the land and in our history. Here is a program.

First, and this may be my favorite: just west of Ashley, on the north side of Highway 11, a statue of Wilhelmine Geiszler, the Martyr Mother of the Germans from Russia, the woman who died attempting to save her daughter from a prairie fire in 1898. The fire came raging across Dry Lake, which really was a dry lakebed at the time, and I can point you to the place where the events took place.

Second, at Strasburg and along Highway 85, the Lawrence Welk Highway—a statue of the man himself. You may think you are too cool for Lawrence Welk, but if so, then you don’t know enough of the history of American popular culture to understand.

Third, to match the Bjornson on the NDSU campus, and in honor of our great German-Russian, Michael Miller, just retired from forty-five years of service: an installation of some kind—we can talk about it—bespeaking the German-Russian commitment to the land. I predict this one will get done before the other two.

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