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Illinois Issues Summer Book Section

Splendid saga of Chicago's Norsemen


Odd S. Lovoll. A Century of Urban Life: Norwegians in Chicago Before 1930.
The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1988.
Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Pp. 367 with index. $29.95 (cloth).

Knute Rockne's neighborhood is no longer Norwegian. The well-known fraternal lodge, the Norway House, closed recently, and only a few lonely landmarks attesting to a vibrant Norwegian past remain in Humboldt Park. Among these are the Norwegian-American Hospital, treating mostly Hispanics today; the Minnekirke, offering its Lutheran congregation services in the mother tongue; and a statue of that indomitable Norse explorer Leif Ericson.

Not long ago, writes Professor Odd S. Lovoll of Saint Olaf College, Humboldt Park bustled with the sounds and sights of a Norwegian presence. In winter the park's lagoons rang with the sounds of Norwegian-American speedskaters dashing their short sprints or pacing the ice lanes with their long-distance strides. Olympian gold medalist Sonja Henie glided across the ice in one of her many exhibitions.

A ski jump was erected in the park flat-lands, necessitating construction of a wooden tower and an adjoining landing hill. High-flying Norsemen were not about to be grounded by flatland geography or unpredictable snow. They not only built hills where there were none but brought in snow by railroad car from Wisconsin when necessary. Determination of that sort would help make Norwegians the founders of ski sport in America.

For the Norwegian off-season (summer and fall) there was the example of young Knute Rockne, who was born in Voss, Norway, in 1888 and who emigrated at age 5, finding his way into America through Humboldt Park. Here this Lutheran immigrant learned a sport not played in Norway and grew so proficient at it that he became one of the greatest football coaches of all time at Notre Dame.

Occupationally, Norwegian immigrants clustered in wood working, furniture-making and Great Lakes sailing jobs. Many Norwegian-American artisans and craftsmen worked in Norse-owned furniture factories such as Andrew Johnson's. In Norway the wily Johnson provided prospective immigrant-workers with the raw materials to make their trunks, and if they arrived in Chicago with a decently made and durable product, they were hired at the Johnson Chair Company.

Lovoll's history covers such topics as the arts and letters, musicals and theater, fraternal and social lodges, occupational mobility, intra-group marriage rates and language retention of Norwegian Americans in Chicago. Full of fascinating and hitherto unavailable information, this is a splendid saga of the city's Norsemen.□

Melvin G. Holli is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also editor of Ethnic Chicago (1981, 1984).

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 26

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