Family stories, Minnesota history

A new exhibit at the Lyon County Museum looks at the history of Norwegian immigration in Minnesota

A new exhibit on Norwegian immigrants at the Lyon County Museum combines artifacts on loan from southwest Minnesota residents, as well as memorabilia from Norwegian culture. Museum director Jennifer Andries showed a set of antique stereoscope pictures of people and scenery in Norway.


Immigrants from countries like Norway have had a big impact on Minnesota’s history and population. But telling their story also means telling the stories of local residents and their families.

A new traveling exhibit at the Lyon County Museum looks at both of those angles, combining historical research on Norwegian immigrants with artifacts on loan from area residents. The exhibit, titled “New Land, New Life: Norwegian Immigration in Minnesota 1825-1925,” was made possible by the St. Paul Sons of Norway Synnove-Nordkap lodge, and the Canby Sons of Norway Vennskap lodge.

A series of 20 informational panels, set up around the museum’s Heritage Room, talk about the stories of Norwegian immigrants, as well as different aspects of their life and culture. This portion of the exhibit was first hosted by the Ramsey County Historical Society and has traveled to different locations in Minnesota, said Dorothy Zimmerman, a member of the Canby Sons of Norway.

Members of the Canby Sons of Norway lodge wanted to bring the traveling exhibit to their area. However, there was the question of where to host the exhibit. The Canby Sons of Norway includes members from a wider area than just Canby, including both southwest Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. The Lyon County Museum seemed like a good location to attract visitors, Zimmerman said.

“We felt we were more visible,” she said.

A series of 20 panels with text and photos cover topics like churches, the arts, education and even Norwegian immigrants’ humor. One panel discusses the background of the Ole and Lena joke, as well as the work of farmer and cartoonist Peter J. Rosendahl of Spring Grove.

Besides the panels, there are also a variety of artifacts from Norwegian and Icelandic immigrants, and crafts and collectibles from Norway.

“A lot of the items that we’ve put in the exhibit are from the Sons of Norway,” said Lyon County Museum Director Jennifer Andries. Some of the items on display include family heirlooms like Bibles and hymnals, and Scandinavian bent wood boxes. A worn wooden trunk on loan from the John Lund family made the journey from Iceland to Minnesota, Andries said. The Lyon County Museum was also able to add some artifacts from its own collection, as well as items related to Norway, like a series of stereoscope images of the country’s people and scenery.

Norwegian and other Scandinavian immigrants have helped shape the culture and history of Lyon County, Andries said.

“There are so many people who have a Norwegian background,” especially in certain parts of the county, she said. That influence can even be seen in some of the place names in Lyon county today — Eidsvold, Nordland, Westerheim and Vallers townships are all named for places in Norway.

Both Andries and Zimmerman said they hoped exhibits like this one get different groups of people interested in sharing their families’ stories.

“We’re hoping what it will instill is respect and love for their own families,” Zimmerman said, and educate people curious about other countries and cultures. Zimmerman said learning about her own ancestors, who emigrated to southwest Minnesota in the 1800s, has enriched her life.

“It’s the people who are important,” Zimmerman said of learning about family histories. Many Norwegian immigrants came to the U.S. fleeing poverty and hardship. The chance to homestead in Minnesota was a huge opportunity for them, she said.

“New Land, New Life” opened July 1. Andries said new items on loan from area residents are still arriving at the museum, and an opening reception will be held July 13. At 7 p.m., the Rev. Lyle Snyder will speak about the journey of his great-great-grandfather, Johanes Kjelson Westereng, from Norway to America.

The exhibit will run until Sept. 30 at the Lyon County Museum.