Stories of the first Norwegian pioneers of Norway Lake celebrated at site of the old log church


— The first European settlers of what is now the area of Norway Lake, north of present-day Pennock, arrived from Norway in 1858. Ten years later, following the U.S.-Dakota War, this community of settlers rebounded and came together to build a little log church. It was small, only 26 feet by 30 feet, and lasted only seven years, but its impact on the community was big.

Thanks to the Norway Lake Lutheran Historical Association, founded in 1997, visitors to the site of that first log church can experience both the religious and cultural impact by attending a summer vespers service or attending the annual anniversary celebration. The association also holds events and programs at the modern-day churches of East and West Norway Lake.

"Part of it involves gathering people, part of it involves coffee and, as far as I know, lefse has always been a part of it as well," said John Hanson, current president of the association.

The story of the very first Norway Lake Lutheran Church began in 1868 when the log church went up at what is now the corner of 99th Street Northwest and 195th Avenue Northwest north of Pennock. It was made of oak logs and built using only simple hand tools such as axes, saws and square-headed nails.

"Each settler was obligated to bring a log," said Charles Shuck, a founding member of the association.

The little log church would serve as the center of the growing Norway Lake community until 1877, when the decision was made to split the congregation into two and construct the first East and West Norway Lake Lutheran churches. During its short time there were 490 baptisms, 142 confirmations, 72 marriages, 77 burials and 125 services at the log church.

"It (the church) wasn't big enough to handle all the people that wanted to participate," said Ed Huseby, founding member of the association.

Soon after the decision was made to split the congregation, the log church was dismantled and the wood send to the parsonage farm to be used in a barn. For more than a century, the site of the little log church was mostly known only through family and church memory. There were burials at the site, but it seems the cemetery was quickly abandoned as new ones were consecrated at the new churches.

"People were buried there, 60-some people perhaps," Hanson said. "Disturbed, the area was farmed."

In 1916, the 50-year jubilee of the Norway Lake Parish was reportedly celebrated at the site, but for the most part it remained a quiet corner of a farm field. In the mid-1970s, Marvin Hauge and other church members did some investigative work on the site, including using a metal detector, and were able to uncover several square-headed nails that were probably used in the construction of the church. Those nails are on display at the church site. A memorial marker was also installed.

"He always wanted recognition for that site, for the settlers," Huseby said.

The impetus behind wanting to construct a building on the site started with Rev. Joel Njus, Huseby said, and eventually it was decided to build a replica of the old log church. The historical association was formed in 1997 as part of that goal.

"This has been a very interesting and a very fulfilling project to partake in," Huseby said. "When we were building, periodically we would step back and just step back and look at what we were accomplishing."

The association wanted the log church to be something more than just a historical marker — to again become an important piece of the parish and community. That started with a dedication ceremony in 1999 and continues today with a calendar of events.

"Pretty soon after it became a building, which was a thing in itself, then it was how do we use the building and we're still talking about that. We think about it every year," Hanson said.

The log church itself holds Vesper services Saturday evenings throughout the summer, and also holds a special service at the start of the Advent season, usually around the end of November.

In August, the grounds of the log church welcome people to the annual anniversary celebration of the church's construction. People gather for an afternoon of history, stories and music. For the 2022 event, the program focused on the women of the Norway Lake Lutheran Church, stories that sometimes get forgotten in the history books. Over the last several years the association has told those stories in new ways, such as through short plays written by Norm Hande.

"We want to do things that appeal to (and) audience," Hanson said. "We don't want to keep doing the same thing."

The association also holds its annual meeting in January and a Syttende Mai celebration around May 17, or Norway Constitution Day. Those events are held at the modern-day churches of the Norway Lake parish, but still play a part in keeping the community of the old log church together. All of these events also celebrate the Norwegian culture of the original settlers and many of the families involved today.

"People are really aware of being Norwegian," Hanson said. "They are aware of their cultural heritage and they're proud of it."

Over the years, the association has made an effort to reach out to the other native and immigrant communities that call Kandiyohi County home.

The granddaughter of Chief Little Crow of the Mdewakanton Dakota — along with other members of both the Dakota and Latino communities — have been invited to take part in the association's events. Huseby fondly remembers introducing a group of young boys to lefse for the first time at one of those events.

"It was just cool to see," Huseby said.

In October 2019, the association held the program "Common Threads: Sharing Our Immigration Stories."

During this event, first-generation immigrants who came from around the world told their stories, and attendees reflected on the early settlers' experiences while also discussing the similarities and differences of the two eras.

"When the people came and told their stories about where they came from, what happened, that means something," Hanson said. "Whatever is involved, when hearing people's stories it conveys a human connection."

Members of the association hope it can continue to "gather, preserve and disseminate" the history, stories, religion and culture of the Norway Lake pioneers for years to come, while also inviting others to share their own histories in a mission to celebrate both the similarities and differences between them.

"Hopefully we can add perspective and we can confront some of the complexities and difficult parts of the story," Hanson said.