Duluth prepares for visit from Norwegian royals

Kris Eide
Kris Eide, president of the Sons of Norway Duluth, shows off her Norwegian pride. Eide was born in Norway and moved to the U.S. when she was seven. She's a retired Norwegian language teacher and still teaches Norwegian cooking classes out of her home.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

The King and Queen of Norway arrive in Duluth Monday afternoon on the last full day of their trip to the region. The royal visit has garnered a huge amount of attention in Duluth, which displays its Norwegian heritage perhaps even a bit more prominently than most of Minnesota.

It's hard to miss the Norwegian influence in Duluth. There's Leif Erikson Park, home to a replica Viking ship that sailed from Norway to Duluth in the 1920s. Enger Tower stands guard high over the city, donated to Duluth by a Norwegian immigrant.

In downtown Duluth, you can even grab a lingenberry shake or a "lefse dog" -- a hot dog wrapped in the traditional Norwegian flatbread -- at a cafe called Takk for Maten, which means "Thank you for the food."

Bente Soderlind works at the cafe. She was born and raised in Bergen, Norway, and moved to Duluth 12 years ago. She said her Norwegian heritage is more significant here than it was in Norway.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm not Norwegian enough," she joked, adding that she didn't even know how to make lefse until she moved to Duluth.

"You learn to appreciate the old traditions," said Soderlind. "What's really nice and interesting is how much it means for the older generations or the second generation of Norwegians here."

Many of them stay connected to their home country through the local chapter of the Sons of Norway, which has literally rolled out the red carpet for the royal couple in their meeting hall.

"We now have plastic covering this red carpet that was recently laid down," said the chapter's president Kris Eide. "Nobody has walked on it, so the King and Queen will be the first ones to walk on a pristine red carpet."

Eide said the organization has spent $50,000 and logged more than 600 volunteer hours sprucing up the century-old downtown hall. There's fresh paint, restored hardwood floors, new lighting, and beautifully upholstered benches.

"In Norway you have a tradition, we call it 'pysse opp,' which means to polish up your place," said Eide. "Every time you have company, you do things like wash ceilings and repaint, and that's exactly what we're doing in the Norwegian style. Every spot is going to be new and fresh and clean for the king and queen of Norway."

Norwegians seem to be especially fond of their monarchs, whom they often describe as down-to-earth, regular people. Eide calls the king a moral leader. She said that was never more apparent than this summer, when 76 people were killed in an Oslo bombing and a massacre at a youth camp.

"When this recent tragedy at Utoya occurred, they were waiting for his words," said Eide. "He spoke to the people, he cried with the people."

Irene Raimo, a native of Norway who now lives in Duluth, said she remembers another momentous time in Norway's history, as she looks at an old photograph.

"There you see Harald in that picture, now the King, and he was 8 years old" at the time, she said.

The photo was taken in 1945, at the end of World War II, when the Royal Family -- including young Harald -- returned to Oslo. They had fled to America when the Germans invaded. Raimo was 14 years old at the time.

"It was such a joy to have them back, they were very important," she recalled. Raimo said she was filled with patriotism. And she said today's royal visit is important for Norwegian-Americans.

"There are many Norwegians around here and they're holding on to their heritage," she said. "To have the honor of the King and Queen of Norway to come, I think that's a huge thing."

It's even a big thing for non-Norwegians. Jim Heffernan is a native Duluthian who wrote a column for the Duluth News Tribune for more than 30 years. He thinks Duluth's Norwegian heritage only partly explains all the fuss the royal visit is causing.

"Duluth has always felt kind of like a country cousin to the Twin Cities. And it's flattered to have this kind of attention," Heffernan said.

The attention will be short-lived. The King and Queen will rededicate the newly restored Enger Tower Monday afternoon -- something King Harald's father first did back in 1939.

Then they're off to New York, where the royal couple will visit ground zero, a site that may have new meaning for them after the massacre in Oslo last summer.