Why a fictional character gets an annual festival in Lindstrom, Minn.

The statue of Karl Oskar and Kristina
In the statue of Karl Oskar and Kristina in Lindstrom, Minn., Karl Oskar looks out to the Minnesota wilderness while his wife looks back toward Sweden. The two are fictional characters from Vilhelm Moberg's novel "The Emigrants."
Courtesy of Chisago Chamber of Commerce

Karl Oskar Nilsson is a legend around Linsdtrom, Minn.

A statue of Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina stands near downtown, drawing thousands of tourists from all over the world. In another park sits the Karl Oskar house, a relocated farmhouse from the 1860s.

And this week, Lindstrom is celebrating the 53rd year of its annual festival, Karl Oskar Days.

So who is Karl Oskar?

He never existed. He's the invention of Vilhelm Moberg, a Swedish novelist who wrote about the experiences of Minnesota's early Swedish settlers.

His series of novels, collectively known as "The Emigrants," were published in the 1950s and made a splash around the world. They were bestsellers in the United States and are still considered to be some of the most important Swedish literature ever published.

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The books follow several generations of Karl Oskar's family as they leave Sweden and start a new life in Minnesota. The series remains so popular in Sweden that two former members of the pop band ABBA wrote a musical based on the books in 1995.

"People from Sweden come over here in droves," said Kathy George, deputy clerk for Lindstrom. "About 3,000 to 4,000 tourists come every year."

Author Vilhelm Moberg and his bike
Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg was memorialized, along with his bike, with a statue in Chisago City, Minn.
Courtesy of Chisago City

Moberg based his novels on the life of Erik Norelius, an early settler who left Hassela, Sweden, for Minnesota in 1850. That was the start of a large wave of Swedish immigration, which continued into the early 20th century. More than 1 million Swedes are estimated to have moved to the United States in that time, and they primarily settled in the Midwest.

Moberg visited Minnesota in the 1940s to research his novels. He stayed in Lindstrom and traveled around the area by bike. He made such a memorable sight on two wheels that a statue of Moberg on his bike was erected in nearby Chisago City.

As he rode around, the Linn family farmhouse caught his eye. It was built in 1854 by Carl Linn, a Swedish immigrant, and it was the perfect model for Moberg's story.

The house and Moberg's books became so intertwined that the farmhouse was renamed The Karl Oskar House and relocated to a Lindstrom park where visitors can tour it.(The house is known in Swedish as Nya Duvemala, which translates as "New Little Dove's Nest.")

The Karl Oskar House
The Linn family farmhouse, built in the 1850s by Swedish immigrants, served as the model for Vilhelm Moberg's series of novels, "The Emigrants." It was officially renamed the Karl Oskar House and moved to Ki-Chi-Saga Park in Lindstrom, Minn.
Courtesy of Chisago Chamber of Commerce

In 1962, with Moberg's books still selling thousands of copies, the downtown businesses in Lindstrom decided to make Karl Oskar the centerpiece of a new annual festival. They held the first Karl Oskar Days, which has grown into a six-day event with live music, fireworks and even a coronation for Karl Oskar ambassadors (formerly known as Karl Oskar princesses).

The annual event draws the local community and continued interest from Sweden. This year, a Swedish film crew is in town to capture the event for a reality television show.

John Olinger, city administrator of Lindstrom, said Swedish visitors are often surprised at just how Swedish Lindstrom still is. In some cases, the town has upheld traditions that have been lost in the homeland.

"They're surprised when they get an egg in their coffee," he said. "Because they don't put eggs in their coffee anymore."

At this year's Karl Oskar Days, there will be eggs in coffee, historic tours of the town, the annual Grande Day Parade on Saturday and a full schedule of other events.

And if you can't make it, you can pick up a copy of "The Emigrants" and get your Karl Oskar fix that way.