The Life of a Norwegian Pioneer

One brother in South Dakota and one in Norway share their lives through letters.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2012, Volume 33, Number 3

“Dear unforgettable brother Knut A. Stavig . . . America is good for everyone,” wrote Lars Stavig in 1881 from Minnesota to his half brother in Norway. Five years earlier, Lars, his wife Maren, and their three young sons had left their small farm and fishing life in Romsdal, Norway, to make a new life on the prairie.

The brothers exchanged more than 150 letters across the ocean, sharing their successes, failures, faith, and sorrows. The rare back-and-forth record covering more than fifty years has left side-by-side portraits of the American immigrant and the life he left behind in the old country. “This is the most unique collection in Norway,” says scholar Rasmus Sunde about the Stavig letters. “We have lots of letters from America to Norway, but we have very few of both sides of the Atlantic, and only for a few years.”

The correspondence was uncovered by Lars’s grandson, Harold Torness, who heard about the letters while visiting relatives in Norway, and then discovered the other half stored in a garage in California. After having them translated (all were written in Norwegian), Torness believed he had something special, something that could resonate with other people. And it did. What started as just one family’s story has grown into a readers’ theater performed over fifty times in three states and a documentary (both supported by the South Dakota Humanities Council), a house museum, a book in Norwegian, and an upcoming book from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. The documentary was recently awarded a Regional Emmy for historical documentary from the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Lars settled in South Dakota. His homestead grew, as did his family, and he listed his acquisitions proudly to his brother, reporting that he had thirty cows, fourteen horses, and twenty-six chickens at one point. Knut asked, “What use is the milk you get from so many cows?”

Lars often had advice for his brother, telling him to come to America or to settle down. “Don’t let the devil rule over you. Find yourself a woman, Knut Stavig,” he wrote. Knut offered his own wisdom: “Don’t let the savior’s blood run in vain for us,” he urged his brother, frequently concerned for Lars’s soul.

The possibilities and progress of farming in America thrilled Lars. When new threshing machines came into use, he told Knut that threshing time was “like a big wedding except we don’t use whiskey.” Lars lived to see electricity, indoor plumbing, and cars become standard amenities, and to see world politics hit the prairie. “What sad times we are living in,” he wrote in 1917. “A large company of soldiers left from our town. They are our young sons. We follow them to the train as if we are a funeral procession. Then we old people are left behind.”

Lars’s experience makes for a classic immigrant story. He establishes a successful farm, his children go off and become educated and then find spouses and their own successes: The three oldest sons come to own the largest general store in the upper Midwest. The American Stavigs are so affluent they send money to help their Norwegian relative during hard times following his wife’s death.

America is good to Lars, until 1908 when his own wife dies. He moves into his son’s house in town, and there becomes despondent and lonely. “Everything is going well, and then Lars suffers from being human,” says Wayne Knutson, a retired professor of English and theater at the University of South Dakota, who crafted the readers’ theater adaptation. Knutson culled through the letters, setting ground rules to ensure authenticity, but allowing himself the freedom to skip around chronologically and pick and choose the parts of the letters that worked best dramatically.

“The dramatic issue,” says Knutson, “was that suddenly, after all the successes and celebration of being in this country, he found himself over sixty, his wife dies, the children have all left, and he’s alone. Where he loved his language, the Norwegian language, the grandchildren are no longer speaking it. An alienation sets in.” Lars, who had once announced, “I am now a stranger to all things at home in Norway,” soon finds himself writing, “Memories of my childhood and youth will follow me to the grave.”

In the documentary, we see the older Lars, living in a room of his son Peter’s house, looking out an ice-encrusted window onto the prairie. If you squint, you’re not sure if it is grass or ocean swells undulating in the wind. Perhaps Lars was reminded of the similarity when he wrote, “I don’t believe anyone can understand me. The world reminds me of a frothing sea, which can turn us in any direction.”

Lars died in 1933, at the age of ninety; Knut lived until he was ninety-nine, passing away in 1950. Because of their letters, their descendants—such as Lars’s grandson who portrays him in the film and great-granddaughter Jane Rasmussen, who plays the narrator on stage—have an insight into the lives of these men and their universal stories. When Knutson played Lars on stage for many years, he would ask audiences afterward to look for their own families’ letters, and to “put something to paper. There is nothing quite so lasting as these old letters. We owe it to the next generation.”